Chiefs trio aiming to kick old friends into touch
Steenson, Whitten and Caldwell out to shine on their Belfast return
Three former Ulster players are looking forward to running out at the all-new Kingspan Stadium tomorrow night when Exeter Chiefs provide the hosts' opposition in a friendly.
Gareth Steenson, Ian Whitten and Ryan Caldwell are the trio in question and with this being Ulster's first work-out of the new season, the returning exiles can be forgiven for fancying their chances against their native province.
Out-half Steenson and centre Whitten played in the Chiefs' first-half team against Cardiff Blues in Friday night's 24-17 victory at the Arms Park where second row Caldwell, who has joined from Bath, featured in the post-interval 15.
With family members and friends accustomed to travelling to the West Country to watch him play, Steenson is delighted that they now have the opportunity of seeing him in action a lot closer to home.
The stand-off told the Belfast Telegraph: "I'm trying to get about 20 tickets, so hopefully there will be a few in the crowd supporting me."
With this being Ulster's first game of 2014-15 he anticipates a sizeable turn-out.
"I was home a couple of weeks ago and I noticed they were plugging the match so there should be a decent crowd. Friday nights are always good up there," he said.
In recalling that, he is working from memory rather than any recent experience, however.
"I haven't set foot in Ravenhill – or whatever they're calling it now – in eight years and I know it has changed a lot since I last saw it so I'm looking forward to seeing it and playing there," he said.
"It will be nice to go back, particularly with the family coming up to watch."
Although it will be a homecoming for Steenson, Whitten and Caldwell as individuals, this is Exeter's first-ever Belfast visit.
Asked if he and his fellow-Ulstermen will be aiming to prove – and score – a few points, Steenson showed no hint of animosity towards his native province.
"Points to prove? Not really. We've all moved on; we're at a different club so we're just keen to achieve things with them rather than worrying about the past.
"This will be my seventh season with Exeter. After I left Ulster I joined Rotherham and from there I went to Cornish Pirates, so I've been over here a fair while," said Steenson who is now English-qualified by virtue of residency, albeit that his accent is still broad County Armagh.
"When I go home they tell me I'm a bit posher than I used to be," he smiled.
"But I think I'm alright: I don't think I'll be losing my accent – not with Ian Whitten here to keep me right."
As for what Ulster fans can expect from tomorrow night's guests, Steenson said: "There's still a lot of last year's squad here, though we've brought in five or six new players and they have fitted in very well.
"We've got a few boys in the England squad now so there's big things expected of them. And we have young players who started to come through last season so it will be interesting to see how they progress."
Like Ulster, the Chiefs have just revamped their stadium. At this stage the finishing touches are being applied to Sandy Park, for which reason all of their pre-season games are on the road.
Their first home fixture is on September 13 when they host Leicester Tigers, who are grouped with Ulster in Pool 3 of the new European Champions Cup.
Reflecting on Exeter's win in Cardiff, Steenson said: "It was a decent enough performance and a good result, especially with us fielding two different teams in the first and second half. There's a lot of things we're working on so that they're right for the start of the season.
"We're still trying to hone certain plays we want to get right. We've changed a few things and it takes a bit of time for those to work. This match against Ulster will give us a chance to try those again."
Buoyed by having beaten Cardiff in the Welsh capital, this will be their second of three pre-season friendlies.
After their Belfast visit they face a trip to Sixways where they will face Championship outfit Worcester Warriors, who were relegated from the Aviva Premiership last season after winning just one match.
"Our first league match is on September 7 when we're away to London Welsh, so these pre-season games are about getting ourselves sorted in readiness for that," Steenson added.