Ulster 19 Exeter Chiefs 18
Ulster will be grateful for the win. Four minutes remained when Armagh born, Exeter Chiefs outhalf and captain Gareth Steenson nailed a 30-metre drop goal to give his side an 18-16 lead.
The home side needed a moment of inspiration and it was appropriate that the brilliant Charles Piutau would be the architect, making the telling break that allowed Ulster to engineer a field position in the shadow of the Chiefs' posts.
Paddy Jackson dropped back in the pocket, kept his nerve superbly in guiding his 20-metre drop goal through the posts and handed his side redemption on a night when they stuttered and stumbled to find a coherence to their patterns, while guilty of both indiscipline and sloppiness.
Steenson did have a chance with a second long-range drop goal to snatch victory; it only missed by a whisker. In truth Ulster played the better rugby in a stop-start match but costly lapses in concentration and a lack of control almost cost them dearly. The scope for improvement is massive and required immediately.
To their credit Ulster did keep their nerve and it wasn't all doom and gloom. Jared Payne added value every time he touched the ball, so too Stuart Olding, the odd error aside, Kyle McCall got through an astonishing amount of work, as did the pack in general.
The home side got very narrow at times when the pressure came on and in fairness the Chiefs did defend well - they played the officials well in terms of the offside line - and with great commitment. They were facilitated though by some poor execution and decision-making by Ulster. They were half a step off for most of the night.
The Chiefs negated their hosts driving maul and that had a huge impact on the game given that Ulster went to the corner with penalties four or five times.
The Fields of Athenry at the start was a lovely touch, the Ulster supporters offering a personalised tribute to complement the minute's silence for the late Anthony Foley.
Their hearts and minds were quickly redirected to the action on the pitch as Ulster made an impressive start, playing with width and a decent tempo. They managed to get outside Exeter’s midfield cover on a couple of occasions but not definitively so, mainly because those closest to the touchline were forwards.
Paddy Jackson kicked an early penalty but the next three minutes were symptomatic of a malaise that pockmarked the opening 40-minutes from the home side; the issues largely centred on concentration and accuracy in discharging some of the basics of the game.
They lost the re-start and then after soaking up pressure conceded a sloppy penalty at a ruck, where flanker Sean Reidy and referee Alexandre Ruiz differed on whether the ball was out.
Chiefs' scrumhalf Dave Lewis threw the ball against the Irish international and Steenson posted the straightforward penalty: 3-3 flattered the visitors a little. Ulster then produced arguably the best passage of play in the match, varying the point of attack cleverly and offloading out of the tackle.
It started when Franco van der Merwe pilfered a lineout and ended 90 seconds later when the South African lost the ball as he plunged over the line. Play was called back for an earlier penalty and Ulster went to the corner, a tactic they pursued twice more in short order as the Chiefs disrupted driving mauls.
Ruiz issued a team warning to Steenson but the Chiefs escaped when Rodney Ah You knocked on in far corner when trying to resist a double tackle. Energised by the goal-line stand, the English club then negotiated their way into the Ulster 22, courtesy of a Jackson knock-on and then a scrum penalty.
The home side infringed twice more and from the second Steenson gave the visitors a 6-3 lead with a beautifully struck effort from 33 metres. Ulster’s desire to go wide was laudable but less so was the accuracy of the passing, challenging the receiver horribly in greasy conditions, forcing players to check and invariably have to reach behind them for possession.
Ulster craved a moment of inspiration to replace the frustration of stockpiling mistakes and it came from former All Black Charles Piutau. He threatened on one or two occasions to slice through but on 30 minutes did exactly that from a standing start.
His initial stutter-step was impressive, the show-and-go bamboozling three defenders, before he raced into the Chiefs' 22. Steenson made the tackle but Reidy was first onto the loose ball and was prescient in stepping inside the covering James Short to power his way over the line.
Jackson added the conversion and the relief in the stands was tangible, well up to the point when yet another turnover saw Piutau have to step on the gas to beat Short to a long hoof that stopped a metre short of the Ulster try line. At 10-6 interval lead would have been slightly underwhelming for the home side based on the balance of play.
Iain Henderson didn't return, replaced by Clive Ross; Ulster had earlier lost Pete Browne to a head injury. Piutau was again involved positively after the re-start, Short conceding a penalty for hanging on to the Kiwi as he chased a chip through. The home side went to the corner but Exeter bundled the maul into touch.
Jackson did increase the lead on 47 minutes with a superbly struck long range penalty but Ulster's facility to self destruct surfaced in allowing Exeter wing Olly Woodburn to win the re-start and then compound it by giving away a soft penalty, which Steenson tapped over.
At 13-9, the anxiety amongst the home support was palpable. It was about be become more acute. Jackson missed a difficult long-range penalty but Steenson didn’t when handed a 15 metre opportunity on 66 minutes; Ulster again guilty of gifting possession away initially and in the end slightly fortunate to keep their try line intact.
The teams swapped penalties in a two-minute spell, Jackson landing first then Steenson reciprocated, the Exeter one a little harsh. Quite what Les Kiss and Rob Baxter made of their respective teams indiscipline is probably unprintable.
The game, though, was heading for its nerve-shredding finale. Steenson, foot perfect all night, dropped back into the pocket on 76 minutes and landed a sweetly struck drop goal to nudge the visitors 18-16 ahead.
It was apposite that the man of the match the outstanding Piutau should pen the escape clause for the home side his break and offload to Pienaar allowing the South African to take play into the Exeter 22. Several phases later, Jackson popped into the pocket and coaxed a sweetly struck drop goal between the posts.
Even then there was time for the possibility of a final twist but Steenson’ long-range drop goal attempt just drifting wide: there wasn’t much in it, very much mirroring the contest in general.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins: Jackson penalty, 3-0; 7: Steenson penalty 3-3; 27: Steenson penalty, 3-6; 30: Reidy try, Jackson conversion, 10-6; 48: Jackson penalty, 13-6; 51: Steenson penalty, 13-9; 66: Steenson penalty, 13-12; 70: Jackson penalty, 16-12; 73: Steenson penalty, 16-15; 76: Steenson drop goal, 16-18. 77: Jackson drop goal, 19-18.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best, R Ah You; F van der Merwe, P Browne; I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacements: A O'Connor for Browne 12-19 and 21 mins; C Ross for Henderson halftime; R Kane for Ah You halftime-44 and 48-51 mins; R Herring for Wilson 66 mins; C Gilroy for Trimble 67 mins; A Warwick for Ah You 77 mins; T Bowe for Marshall 77 mins.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner; O Woodburn, I Whitten, H Slade, J Short; G Steenson (capt), D Lewis; M Low, J Yeandle, H Williams; M Lees, G Parling; K Horstmann, J Salvi, T Waldrom. Replacements: C Rimmer for Low 49 mins; T Francis for Williams 49 minutes; D Dennis for Salvi 51 mins; J Hill for Lees 63 mins; J Maunder for Lewis 63 mins; O Devoto for Whitten 63 mins.
Referee: A Ruiz (France)