Belfast Telegraph

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Ulsterman Whitten seeking glory on return to Dublin with Exeter


By Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Ian Whitten last togged out to play at Lansdowne Road, the circumstances and stakes were very different.

This weekend, he'll emerge from the state-of-the-art dressing rooms into a modern arena.

On his last appearance, for Queen's against Wanderers in Division Three of the All-Ireland League during the mid-2000s, he togged out in the changing rooms beneath the old West Stand.

The clubhouses at both corners were still standing, a sparse crowd on the terraces and the Belfast students were hammered.

Since then he has won two caps for Ireland and established himself at Exeter Chiefs, with whom he won a Premiership medal.

And yet returning to the Aviva Stadium after all these years is personally satisfying for the 30-year-old from Lisburn, whose family are travelling to Dublin for the day as his side look to turn the tables on Leinster on Saturday.

"It'll be special for me," he admitted. "I played a club game at the old Lansdowne Road for Queen's. I never played in the Aviva so - if picked - it'd be special. I'm sure it'd be special for Steeno (fellow Chief and former Ulster player Gareth Steenson) too.

"We played Wanderers, we got absolutely stuffed. I remember the wee clubhouses at the end... yeah, I've been round a long time."

For all the personal satisfaction at playing at the home of Irish rugby, Whitten is not losing sight of the importance of the result.

After losing Sunday's first meeting between the sides at Sandy Park, the English champions' backs are to the wall, and failure to win in Dublin would likely end their interest in this season's Champions Cup.

"Generally when we've lost games we haven't panicked," he said. "We talk sensibly about what we need to get better. There's still belief. We're top of the Premiership, went away to Montpellier and won. There's belief there we can take from what we've done this year already.

"We believe we're a good rugby side. It's just, can we produce it against Leinster and get a win?

"I'm sure we'll pick ourselves up. We need to go away and get points to keep ourselves in it."

Although they were denied a losing bonus in the home game, Whitten took solace from the joy Exeter got from attacking wide.

"But in the first half it was hard to get our set-ups to go wide. We kept getting choked up or losing the ball in the ruck," he said. "That's something we're going to have to work on.

"I hope we can take a bit of confidence from the game. We had them under pressure, scored a good try in the second half.

"If we can make it tight we can come out the right side of it."

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