A new-look Ulster, with four new signings and three Academy graduates in the starting line-up, fell just short against Exeter Chiefs in tonight's pre-season friendly at Kingspan Stadium, with Rory Scholes claiming a brace of tries and South African back Louis Ludik touching down on his debut.
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY: Friday, August 22
ULSTER 21 EXETER CHIEFS 22, Kingspan Stadium
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: Rory Scholes 2, Louis Ludik; Cons: Ian Humphreys 3
Exeter Chiefs: Tries: Matt Jess 2, Henry Slade; Cons: Gareth Steenson 2; Pen: Gareth Steenson
Ulster called the tune for the vast majority of the encounter, leaking two tries in the closing 10 minutes as the Ulster management - led by interim head coach Les Kiss - rotated their extended 34-man matchday squad.
Despite the narrow defeat, the debut performances from Ulster's new recruits - Louis Ludik in particular - bode well for the start of serious business in two weeks' time when Ulster open their GUINNESS PRO12 campaign away to the Scarlets.
Ulster, clad from top to toe in purple, enjoyed good early ball with Ian Humphreys looking very much at home in the number 10 jersey on his return from a two-year stint at London Irish.
Flanker Sean Reidy's first run-out was less satisfying however, as the New Zealand-born triallist picked up a knock in the eighth minute and was replaced by fellow debutant Clive Ross.
The Chiefs were first on the scoresheet when winger Matt Jess completed a fluent passing move to touch down by the right corner flag in the 15th minute, his score going unconverted as Henry Slade's angular kick drifted wide of the posts.
Strong mauling from the Exeter forwards got the visitors back into the Ulster danger zone again three minutes later, earning a penalty which Slade once again failed to convert.
At this stage the tide visibly turned back in Ulster's favour, with Ludik making a good first impression courtesy of a dynamic burst through the centre of the Exeter defence which, a series of snappy passes later, freed up Scholes on the right wing for the first home try of the season.
Humphreys added the conversion, before a trademark tap penalty from Paul Marshall made the space for Ludik (pictured below) to pick up on 10 metres and wrestle his way over the line for a well-engineered debut try.
Two further points from Humphreys' boot - and a yellow card for Exeter hooker Jack Yeandle for a dangerous tackle on a man in the air - followed in quick succession as Ulster, now armed with a 14-5 lead, closed out the first half in Chiefs' territory.
Ludik looked lively once again early in the second half with another probing break into the Exeter rearguard and, although this foray came to naught and the Chiefs clawed back three points from their next attack through a Gareth Steenson penalty, Ulster were soon to extend their lead.
Scholes was again the finisher, grounding under the posts on 54 minutes after a quick lay-off had caught the Exeter defence off guard.
Humphreys (pictured above) maintained his 100% kicking record with his third successful conversion, although a great collective effort from Exeter on 72 minutes saw the visitors go the length of the pitch for Slade to slide in under the posts.
The score converted, Slade was instrumental moments later as he crafted the perfect grubber kick down the left wing for Jess to pick up and run home try number three for the visitors.
Steenson's conversion edged Exeter a single point ahead with four minutes remaining and Ulster, trailing for the first time in the match, saw their chance to snatch a last-minute victory evaporate as Sean O'Hagan's penalty from just inside the Chiefs' half fell short.
Ulster's final pre-season friendly sees them face up to Leinster next Saturday in Dublin, before the season begins in earnest on Saturday, September 6 in Llanelli.
ULSTER: Ricky Andrew; Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik, Michael Allen, Rory Scholes; Ian Humphreys, Paul Marshall; Callum Black, John Andrew, Declan Fitzpatrick, Alan O'Connor, Franco van der Merwe, Charlie Butterworth, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson (capt).
Replacements used: Clive Ross for Reidy (8 mins), Michael Heaney for Marshall, Andrew Warwick for Black, Kyle McCall for J Andrew, Bronson Ross for Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson for O'Connor, Neil McComb for van der Merwe, Mike McComish for Butterworth, Conor Joyce for Wilson (all half-time), Jack Owens for R Andrew, Sean O'Hagan for Humphreys (both 59), David Shanahan for Heaney, Ruaidhri Murphy for Warwick, Jonny Murphy for McCall, Wiehahn Herbst for B Ross (all 64), Ross Adair for Scholes (65).
EXETER CHIEFS: Phil Dollman; Tom James, Ian Whitten, Sam Hill, Matt Jess; Henry Slade, Haydn Thomas; Ben Moon, Jack Yeandle (capt), Moray Low, Ryan Caldwell, Damian Welch, Mitch Lees, Tom Johnson, Thomas Waldrom.
Replacements: Elvis Taione, Carl Rimmer, Tomas Francis, Don Armand, Ben White, Will Chudley, Gareth Steenson, Chrysander Botha, Brett Sturgess, Greg Bateman, Alex Brown, Sireli Naqelevuki, James Scaysbrook, Stuart Townsend, Ceri Sweeney, Adam Hughes.
Looking to sew up home advantage in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, Munster will be on their guard against a Racing side that rebounded very well with a 34-3 hammering of Leicester Tigers last weekend.
With only three defeats in their last 25 European outings in Belfast, Ulster are hoping to continue their proud home record and kick-start their season ahead of a crucial block of GUINNESS PRO12 games.