Paddy Jackson's kick keeps Euro dream alive with Exeter win
Ulster 19 Exeter 18
Ulster were minutes away from a second sucker-punch Champions Cup loss in the space of a week only for a late Paddy Jackson drop-goal to ensure the province live to fight another day in Europe.
With last week's loss to Bordeaux leaving his side on the ropes, it looked for all the world like it would be a fairytale ending for the other Ulster-born ten on show when Armagh native Gareth Steenson knocked over a kick of his own four minutes from time but, when it was needed most, Jackson's 78th minute response ultimately earned the 19-18 victory.
There was still time for yet more drama as Steenson dropped back in the pocket again but, despite the Ulster Academy product wheeling away with a raised fist in celebration, his second effort of a frantic end-game drifted wide of the right-hand post.
"We had to dig really deep," sighed Andrew Trimble after captaining the side to a European victory for the first time.
"It was one of those finishes to a game that was entertaining, and I think a lot of supporters got their money's worth, but it was a little bit too much for our liking really," the skipper added.
"Jackie's (Paddy Jackson's) appreciation of the game, and appreciation of what to do, and the temperament to do it, when there was a lot of pressure on that drop goal, he really delivered. What more can you ask from your ten?"
After a silence to mark the tragic passing of Munster coach Anthony Foley, Ulster started brightly for the first time since the calendar turned to October and their enterprise was rewarded when Jackson punished an offside with just three minutes on the clock.
The hosts transgressed in a similar fashion soon after, however, Steenson slotting a penalty for the first three of his 18-point haul when Reidy was pinged. Undeterred, the strong opening continued with plenty of attacking intent and Franco van der Merwe fumbling the ball over the line was all that stopped Les Kiss's men quickly grabbing a first try.
From there though, Ulster began to drift in and out of the game as the weather took a turn for the worse.
Trimble thought that had one of those early opportunities brought a score the game could have had a decidedly less nerve shredding conclusion.
"I thought we had them on the ropes and if the forwards want another go who am I to argue," said the skipper. "We had two mauls going forward and then they were on their last chance. That happens sometimes, it slips away from you. Maybe if we had scored then and backed it up it might have been a different game.
"It was always going to be a bit of an arm wrestle when the weather turned."
Steenson added another penalty as the Chiefs took the lead but, just as he was brought here to do, some Charles Piutau magic lit up the contest.
When the All Black gathered the ball he was as close to his own try-line as Exeter's, but quickly recognised a mismatch in the defensive line and burst between two front-rowers. The bulldozing carry, an eye-catching blend of both raw pace and power, saw him drive onwards with only Steenson throwing his body in the way preventing a try.
With Ruan Pienaar quick to the ruck, Sean Reidy's impressive trailing run saw him scoop the ball from the deck and bust his way across the whitewash.
The second-half saw Ulster open the scoring once again, a lengthy penalty from Jackson the choice of Trimble after Ulster's maul was repeatedly repelled in the first-half by an Exeter pack led well by 2013 British and Irish Lion Geoff Parling.
Untidy restarts during losses to both Connacht and Bordeaux-Begles in the last two games had directly resulted in tries for the opposition and Ulster again made something of a mess as they failed to gather the loose ball.
This time, however, the punishment would only be three points, Exeter's possession giving Steenson another chance off the tee.
Leading 13-9 but coming under increasing pressure as time ebbed away, Ulster found themselves in an eerily similar situation to a week before in the south-west of France and, after Jackson was wayward off the tee for a first miss of the night, the game looked like it could have had a similarly galling end.
With 13 minutes to go Steenson's fifth and final penalty of the night reduced the deficit to a point and set up the late dramatics, Trimble, however, was happy with the late show of resilience after the late collapse a weekend before.
"Whenever it comes down to that, it's about who wants it more and who has more character and who is going to be brave enough to stand up and take the game by the scruff of neck.
"We had to do that a couple of times, whenever there is three or four minutes left and you have to get down there, we put Jackie in the pocket and he delivered.
"I am very proud of the performance but there are definitely things to work on."
Better, however, will no doubt be required when Clermont visit in December and, indeed, when the PRO12 resumes on Friday with a visit from Munster.
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble (c), L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best, R Ah You; Pete Browne F van der Merwe; I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson.
REPLACEMENTS: R Herring (for Wilson, 66), A Warwick (for Ah You, 78), R Kane (for Ah You, 49), A O'Connor (for Browne, 21), C Ross (for Henderson, 40), P Marshall, C Gilroy (for Trimble, 68) T Bowe (for Marshall, 78)
EXETER CHIEFS: L Turner; O Woodburn, I Whitten, H Slade, J Short; G Steenson, D Lewis; M Low, J Yeandle, H Williams; M Lees, G Parling; K Horstmann, J Salvi, T Waldrom.
REPLACEMENTS: E Taione, C Rimmer (for Low, 49), T Francis (for Williams, 49), J Hill (for Lees, 63), D Dennis (for Salvi, 51), J Maunder (for Lewis, 63), S Hill, O Devoto (for Whitten, 63)
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (Fra)
Man of the match: Charles Piutau
Match Rating: 6/10