Belfast Telegraph

Kingspan defeat proved a turning point in Chiefs' season

By Michael Sadlier

The last time Ulster and Exeter met, things looked different.

Gareth Steenson's last minute drop goal attempt just sailed wide of the post at the Kingspan Stadium even though the exiled Ulsterman raised a hand in acclamation at what he reckoned was the winning strike.

Small margins and all that, but, back then, the Chiefs were in the grip of what appeared to be a recession that looked as if it might overwhelm them.

Having already lost heavily to Clermont Auvergne at Sandy Park, that defeat in Belfast ensured that the chances of them emulating last season's dramatics - when they made it through to the quarter-finals in bizarre fashion - already looked gone.

And there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the bubble had well and truly burst for Rob Baxter's squad in terms of their Premiership form as well where, last season, they were losing finalists.

Back in October there was even some seditious talk to be heard over Baxter's future at the club he played for before becoming head coach in 2009 and bringing them up to the Premiership.

Fast forward to now and, well, the landscape has entirely altered. The Chiefs have turned their season around and sit third in the Premiership having lost just one of their last eight league games.

And though Europe has only got marginally better for them when they, rather unpredictably, managed to win in Bordeaux - the only success so far for the side propping up the pool - after losing at home to them and Clermont, the fact is that Baxter's Chiefs are, domestically, an entirely revived outfit.

It would appear that a clear work ethic and well-defined inner-belief within the squad that they could bounce back after their early season Premiership form saw the Chiefs win just twice in six games, kicked into gear just when it mattered.

And that narrow defeat at Ulster has been cited by Baxter as the catalyst which helped the tables turn. So, they want to go one better this time and actually rack up a first European home win of the campaign while only talking vaguely of not being entirely out yet.

Baxter has rung the changes for tomorrow with seven new faces in the side after last weekend's home draw with Saracens.

Ex-Ulster player Ian Whitten is in at centre to play alongside his fellow exile and key playmaker Steenson but retaining five of the pack from the Saracens game gives a clue as to how the Chiefs intend to go after this one with powerful No.8 Thomas Waldrom likely to feature.

"We've got a good bit of momentum in the Premiership, and in some ways it's a little disappointing we've stepped out of the Premiership but we're stepping into a fantastic competition," Baxter curiously said.

"But our commitment to the game certainly won't change at all."

Indeed not. After all, the Chiefs want something for the home crowd to remember from their European experience.

Belfast Telegraph


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