New Ulster Rugby coach Les Kiss has reasons to be cheerful
Ulster 21-22 Exeter Chiefs
Les Kiss's first game in charge as Ulster coach ended in a one-point defeat. Despite that, however, he will have taken much encouragement after watching his inexperienced side serve up a good performance first time out.
Pre-season friendlies exist in order to give players game-time ahead of the start of the competitive campaign.
That being the case it would be silly to read too much into the result of any such fixtures; performance and the opportunity to try new plays and combinations are the priorities. In such circumstances, winning is considered to be a bonus and losing no disaster.
Exeter coach Rob Baxter's starting XV featured two former Ulster players in outside-centre Ian Whitten and lock forward Ryan Caldwell.
A third – fly-half Gareth Steenson, who kicked nine of his side's points in the 24-17 away-day victory over Cardiff Blues last weekend – was included on the bench on this occasion and he duly entered the fray at half-time.
Two of the Chiefs' three try-scorers in that Arms Park triumph – wing Jack Arnott and flanker Sam Simmonds – were omitted from last night's 31-strong match-squad, while the third – scrum-half Will Chudley – was one of the visitors' plethora of substitutes.
Ulster had 33 men, requiring them to use both the home and away dressing rooms, as did their guests who were accommodated in facilities beneath the Family Stand at the Aquinas End.
Earlier in the week Ulster newcomer, South African lock Franco van der Merwe, had spoken of his need to get to grips with the infamous vagaries of the weather in this part of the world.
Last night's match got under way in bright sunshine.
Hopefully that climatic rarity will not have misled him.
Ulster debutant, New Zealander Sean Reidy's first outing proved to be a short-Lived one; he exited in the eighth minute gingerly holding his right arm, with Lansdowne's Clive Ross – another first-timer – deputising on the open-side flank.
Moments later a third home-team debutant – South African Louis Ludik – suffered a heavy blow in tackling Whitten. Ludik required on-field treatment and no sooner had he made his way back into the defensive line than Exeter left wing Matt Jess scored in the right corner.
Henry Slade missed the conversion, following which his side's full-back Phil Dollman also bowed out injured, with Chrysander Botha taking over. Perhaps we were going to need all those substitutes after all?
Ulster levelled on 25 minutes from a flowing move which began with them putting a penalty into touch and winning clean possession off the top of the resultant line-out on the right, outside the Exeter 22.
They moved the ball left, with captain Roger Wilson twice involved in the passage which saw then them go right where they had engineered an overlap. Rory Scholes touched down and Ian Humphreys resumed his Ulster career with a great conversion which gave his side a 7-5 lead.
Ulster had grown into the match, with their increasing confidence mirrored in Exeter's concession of a stream of penalties. Their indiscipline proved costly, with Ulster bagging their second try after 34 minutes when Ludik forced his way over under the posts leaving Humphreys with the easy task of adding the extras.
Trailing 14-5 the Chiefs promptly suffered another blow when their captain and hooker Jack Yeandle was yellow-carded by referee Gary Conway.
With a 14-5 lead going into the second-half, Ulster were in control of the situation, with their set-pieces going well, their defence well organised and their handling good given that this was their first match after the summer lay-off.
Exeter rang the changes – three at half-time and another trio early in the second period – but continued to concede penalties.
However the opening points of the half came when were guilty of the same thing, with Steenson on target with the easy penalty.
Ulster's response was instant and brilliant, with Scholes scorching through a chasm and powering home from 40 metres. Again Humphreys added the conversion, making it 21-8.
'Stand up for the Ulster men' echoed round the Kingspan Stadium – remarkable for a friendly match, as was the 13,000 attendance which included a small but engagingly vociferous number of Chiefs fans.
Humphreys and Ricky Andrew vacated their berths at 10 and 15, with Sean O'Hagan and Jack Owens taking over at the start of the final quarter. The front promptly followed en masse, enabling Jonny Murphy, Ruaidhri Murphy and Wiehahn Herbst taking over.
Two-try hero Scholes was withdrawn, too, with Ross Adair entering for the final 15 minutes.
The first scrum after those changes saw the new men earn themselves a penalty. Impressive.
However it was Ceri Sweeney who applied the finish to a good spell by Exeter who finally broke through after initially being repelled by some stout home defence.
That was converted, as was a second Jess try a minute later, thereby giving the Chiefs a 22-21 lead with under five minutes remaining. In the 79th minute O'Hagan was unable to land a long-range penalty. No matter – plenty to build on.