Whitten set for European half-century
By Mark Stevens
Unsung Ulsterman Ian Whitten has notched up his fair share of milestones already during his eight-year stay with the Exeter Chiefs.
Brought across the Irish Sea in the summer of 2012 by Rob Baxter, the Lisburn-born back was a relative unknown to all but anyone outside of Ravenhill.
A product of Ulster’s Academy system, Whitten spent four years with the Irish province before opting for a change of scenery and a new start with the highly-ambitious Chiefs.
Like many of Baxter’s signings over the years, he ticked all the right boxes, not just in terms of his playing ability, but in what he could offer to the overall Exeter mix.
Well, 217 appearances and 27 tries later, Whitten remains very much an integral cog in the Chiefs machine, particularly as they chase honours on two fronts in both the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup.
Not only has he helped the Devon club to top spot and a fifth successive play-off appearance next month, but he will this weekend run out for a 50th Champions Cup appearance.
He’s the first Exeter player to achieve the feat and following the final whistle of his side’s last eight meeting with Northampton Saints, he will be awarded a commemorative cap to celebrate the honour.
It will be the latest milestone in an impressive Chiefs career for Whitten who, ironically, ran out for his 150th Premiership appearance against the Saints at a packed Sandy Park back in February.
Sadly, the masses will not be there to salute his latest achievement, but he is hoping to crown the day by guiding the Chiefs into a first-ever Champions Cup semi-final.
It’s a competition which Whitten – by his own admission – holds close to his heart.
“I’ve always enjoyed the European Cup, it’s like the highlight of the season,” said the 33-year-old. “As a player, you’re excited to play in those games, so for me to reach 50 at the weekend, it’s a nice achievement to have.”
What would be nicer, however, would be for the Chiefs to maintain their impressive run of form and book a last four outing against either Toulouse or his former club Ulster.
“That would be nice,” answers Whitten when quizzed on the matter. “First, though, we’ve got to get through the weekend. Northampton, we know, will be coming down here with nothing to lose and everything to gain. What we’ve done previously against them counts for nothing, including this season. At the end of the day, it’s a knockout game of rugby and form, selection, past games, it all goes out the window.
“This is a European quarter-final, so whoever you end up playing, they are going to be up for it!”
In a competition where the Chiefs have had their highs, but also a fair share of lows, this season it appears Baxter’s squad have finally found their groove, advancing through from the pool stages with an unbeaten record.
Victory at La Rochelle in their opening game was followed by subsequent wins against Glasgow Warriors (home) and Sale Sharks (home and away). A draw up in Scotland in January maintained their charge, before they wrapped up proceedings with another triumph against La Rochelle.
Only four-time winners Leinster had a better qualification record and Whitten is hopeful the resumption of the competition will see the Chiefs click back into gear against their Premiership counterparts.
“Over the years we’ve perhaps struggled at times to get our heads around the intensity of the competition,” added the Irish international. “If you look at some of the Pro14 sides, this is what they live for, and they really target games.
“We’ve had some great results over the years, but we’ve not really been able to back it up at times. This season, it’s been different. We got off to a great start in La Rochelle and they set the tone really. To get five points away from home in France, that’s special and we backed it up after that, including the two back-to-back wins against Sale.
“Now, we’ve got to go again this weekend and give it everything if we want to be playing in that semi-final.”
Just once before have the Chiefs reached the quarter-final stages of Europe’s top club competition. That was back in 2016, when a last-gasp conversion from Jimmy Gopperth saw Wasps edge home 25-24 in a classic at the Ricoh Arena.
Four years on from that game, Whitten admits the result still stings. He added: “That was a tough result to take. Wasps were flying that year, playing some great rugby, but we got into them and we we’re in a great position. We got into the lead, but they came back at us.
“Looking back, we probably left a few tries out there that day and it came back to bite us at the end. It was, however, a good lesson for us to learn and since then I think all of us at the club have moved on and taken things to another level.”
Although the Chiefs only have one Premiership crown to their name, they have consistently shown they are the rising force within English game and Whitten believes successful times are not too far away.
“I don’t think too much has changed since the day I arrived here,” added Whitten. “I knew I was joining an exciting and ambitious club and it’s still very much like that now. Obviously, a few things have changed over the years, including some of the players, but a lot of what we do has remained the same.
“When you look at the squad we have now, it’s a fantastic group of players, many of whom have still not hit their prime. That’s scary for others to see, but for those of us who are here at the club, it’s hugely exciting. The quality that is here is without doubt the best I’ve been around since I’ve been a professional.
“You only have to look at recent results, we’ve been running two different squads, but everyone has been performing and doing their bit each week. Now, the challenge for all of us is to keep pushing hard and put ourselves in contention for those big games and those big trophies at the end of the season.”
Certainly, victory over the Saints will be one to savour, as will some of the other European highlights of yesteryear, including home victories over the likes of Clermont, Bordeaux and the Ospreys, as well as the all-so-close first outing away to Leinster back in 2012.
“That game was unbelievable,” recalls Whitten. “That Leinster side was fully loaded and everyone expected them to wipe the floor with us that day. In the end, we could have come away with at least a draw.
“What was good, especially in those early days, were the team talks. Things have obviously changed a fair bit over the years, but the message then was going empty yourselves on the pitch, then go and empty yourselves after. They were good times!”
More good times could follow for Whitten and the Chiefs between now and the end of the season. It’s just a case of overcoming the hurdles, the first of which is posed by the visiting Saints.