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Ulster duo are flying the flag in Chiefs' bid to clinch Euro success


Fond memories: Ian Whitten saw Ulster’s 1999 Euro triumph

Fond memories: Ian Whitten saw Ulster’s 1999 Euro triumph

©INPHO/James Crombie

Fond memories: Ian Whitten saw Ulster’s 1999 Euro triumph

There may be no Irish province in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup, but there is a strong Ulster presence in the Exeter Chiefs side hoping to stay on course for a first final this season.

Dungannon's Gareth Steenson will fill the No.10 jersey against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena today (3.15pm) and Lisburn's Ian Whitten will play outside him in the centre. Both have become key figures at a club that has exceeded all expectations since climbing out of the Championship into the Aviva Premiership in 2010.

Steenson was in on the ground floor, kicking the Chiefs to victory after victory but Whitten, the two-time capped Irish international, has made his presence felt since joining from Ulster in 2012.

Whitten said: "It was a bit of a leap in the dark when I joined the Chiefs. I didn't know much about Exeter when I arrived, but I have to say the club is brilliant and so are the players.

"It is well run from the top down and it has been a really enjoyable four years, with hopefully more success to come."

Having won the LV=Cup in 2014, the Chiefs have reached their first Champions Cup quarter-final and currently sit in second place in the Premiership table, seemingly on course for a home semi-final. Could Whitten and Steenson find themselves heading to two major finals this season?

Whitten added: "The first thing I have to worry about is getting into the team, rather than dreaming of anything else. We are a good defensive team, and a good all round team, and we've got to believe in ourselves.

"You don't get the chance to play in many games of this stature, so you have to savour them and make the most of the opportunities. It's going to be a special one-off game in front of a massive crowd - we'll get a buzz out of that.

"We will have to be good defensively against Wasps because they love to throw it about. We went up there and won in the Premiership, 41-27, and that was a great result, but they are playing a bit better now and it will be all about us stopping them."

Whitten, like every young rugby player in Ireland, was weaned on the old Heineken Cup. Like so many others, he was in Dublin the day Ulster won the European Cup against Colomiers at Lansdowne Road.

The memories of that great day have remained with him throughout his career and the prospect of following in the footsteps of players like David Humphreys, Andy Ward, Simon Mason and Jonny Bell will no doubt inspire him this weekend.

"I was only 11 in 1999 when I went down to Lansdowne Road with my Dad and uncle - everyone went, it was a sea of red and white. We had to stop on the way because my uncle wanted to go to the toilet and all the cars and coaches that passed us gave him a honk on their horns," recalled Whitten.

"I don't remember much about the game, but I do remember getting on the pitch at the end and everyone going mad. That was a special moment and a special time.

"It was such a momentous event and those Ulster players have gone down in history as the first Irish team to win the European Cup. It has been hard for Ulster ever since then.

"In a way Ulster are still trying to emulate that great day and there is a lot of pressure on the players back home.

"They were in the final in 2012, but what happened in 1999 hangs over them and gives them pressure that they don't really need,

"The first time you get to play in the European Cup it is really special because the Irish teams all make a big deal out of it. The Pool matches are the glamour fixtures of the season, but it is different in the Premiership, where every league game is so big."

Meanwhile, Premiership leaders Saracens, coached by Ulsterman Mark McCall, will start as firm favourites to topple Allianz Park visitors Northampton today, with the winners facing Wasps or Exeter in a semi-final showdown at Reading's Madejski Stadium on April 23.

Leicester complete the sizeable English contingent in Champions Cup action this weekend when they host Stade Francais at Welford Road tomorrow, with European title holders Toulon facing a Paris appointment with Racing 92.

Belfast Telegraph