Ulster kiss goodbye to European Cup dreams after Exeter demolition job
Exeter 31 Ulster 19
While not quite dormant, Ulster's visit from Bordeaux this weekend will have the feel of a dead rubber with Les Kiss's men all but out of the Champions Cup after falling to Exeter last night.
The province did manage three tries in the 31-19 reverse at Sandy Park, but the Aviva Premiership outfit crossed the whitewash on five occasions and used a powerful second-half display to maintain their own slim chances of a quarter-final place.
After Ulster finished the game with 14 thanks to Paddy Jackson's late yellow card, one final flurry came up short to ensure the province would not take a single point from three away games in this campaign.
Sean Reidy's try and a pair of scores from the spectacular Charles Piutau had briefly sparked hopes of an unlikely charge to the last eight, especially when other results went their way over the weekend, but the Kingspan outfit must now face up to a third consecutive season without European rugby in the springtime.
In a game where anything less than a win would leave their hopes of progression in tatters, Ulster had begun seemingly intent on giving themselves a real chance.
After pressuring Exeter into an early turnover, a set-move created a gaping hole for Stuart McCloskey to canter through, with the bulldozing centre offloading for Reidy to score.
In an encouraging opening, the visitors seemed set to create another score only minutes later but, after some 22 phases, were pinged for holding on just metres from the opposition line.
England wing Jack Nowell was prominent though and, with a quarter gone, Exeter's backline made the most of a penalty advantage and a misread from Andrew Trimble to put Michele Campagnaro into space.
The despairing tackle of Rory Best was not enough to stop the Italian international from levelling matters.
Former Royal School Armagh pupil Gareth Steenson couldn't give his side the lead with the conversion.
Now very much in the ascendancy, the TMO denied Exeter a quick-fire double but Romain Poite did eventually award Rob Baxter's men a second score when the prolific Tom Waldrom picked up from the base of an unsteady scrum and forced his way over.
Ross Kane, making his first European start, was lost to injury just after the half hour mark, making way for Champions Cup debutant Johnny Simpson, but Ulster held firm at the next scrum to score again.
From just inside the Exeter half, Jackson's well-timed pass gave Piutau the opportunity to attack and the wing showed all his quality to leave Nowell grasping at thin air before crossing the whitewash.
This time Jackson converted to leave the scores level at half-time.
After the turn, Exeter were the team applying the pressure, sensing a superiority in the scrum.
Another incisive attack brought a set-piece just five metres out but a Louis Ludik interception briefly brought respite.
Play was called back for a scrum penalty on Callum Black and this time the hosts went for touch.
Ulster repelled the maul but could not gain a foothold before they were underneath their own posts again, this time Exeter could make ground off the scrum and Waldrom barged over for his second.
Campagnaro soon followed suit, bagging another himself following a fantastic combination from Phil Dollman and Nowell that scythed through the Ulster midfield.
Steenson couldn't convert but Ulster's campaign was teetering on the brink.
In such a precarious situation, captain Trimble went for the corner from a kickable penalty just on the hour and fortune did indeed momentarily favour the brave.
The subsequent maul was rumbling towards the line when Exeter infringed, the penalty advantage allowing Jackson to put a kick into the corner where Piutau was lurking to become the third player of the game to grab a brace of tries.
The All Black made sure to give his out-half every chance of the much needed conversion but the kick would be the last points Ulster scored.
Piutau and Jackson did almost create another opening for Dave Shanahan, who was solid in his first start, but a late penalty try, which just as in Clermont brought a yellow card for Jackson, meant Ulster were chasing nothing more than bonus points.
And while they launched one more desperate attack, even consolation was not forthcoming.
EXETER: P Dollman; J Nowell, M Campagnaro, I Whitten, O Woodburn; G Steenson, D Lewis; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, G Holmes; M Lees, J Hill; T Johnson, D Armand, T Waldrom
REPLACEMENTS: J Yeandle (for Cowan-Dickie, 59), M Low (for Moon, 59), H Williams (for Holmes, 59), D Dennis, K Horstmann (for Johnson, 55), S Townsend (for Lewis, 67), J Simmonds, O Devoto
ULSTER: L Ludik; C Piutau, L Marshall, S McCloskey, A Trimble; P Jackson, D Shanahan; C Black, R Best, R Kane: K Treadwell, P Browne; I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
REPLACEMENTS: J Andrew (for Best, 78), A Warwick (for Black, 45) , J Simpson (for Kane, 33), F van der Merwe (for Treadwell, 63), C Ross (for Browne, 55), P Marshall (for Shanahan, 78), B Herron (for Trimble, 72), J Stockdale (for L Marshall, 60)