IAN WHITTEN PLAYED 20 times for Ulster last season. The season before, he played 20 times. In the summer he packed his bags and headed to Exeter.
“I was always on the fringes of the Ulster squad,” he told TheScore.ie. “I never felt like I had my foot firmly in the door and was never really considered a starter.”
The 25-year-old took the decision to move to the Chiefs and sample life in the Aviva Premiership.
He returns to Ireland this weekend to play in his new side’s first outing in the Heineken Cup and they could not have landed a tougher debut.
“(Pool 5) is tough but, in a way, it’s a fantastic group. Leinster and Clermont have been, consistently, the best Irish and the best French team in the competition for the past few years.
“Then you have Scarlets with George North and the boys in a great backline.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to see where we are, test ourselves against the best and give ourselves a benchmark for the future.”
Nacewa, O’Driscoll & co.
Before Whitten can begin the sleepless nights when nearing the clash with North, Jonathan Davies and Scarlets, he must first contend with Isa Nacewa.
The Lisburn native has played on the right wing in each of his his starts for the Chiefs this season while the Fijian flyer lined up on the left wing against Munster at the weekend and is expected to recover in time, from his haematoma, to play. Whitten said:
No matter what injuries Leinster have, they’ll still put out a decent backline. They have loads and loads of good players and the newer lads, (Ian) Madigan and (Andrew) Conway, are looking good.
“Nacewa has been really good for them. Ever since he arrived he has helped them kick on in Europe and the Pro12.”
He added, “They are quite a difficult team to analyse because they can adapt to take on different teams.
“They have a good squad and change their team almost every week. It is hard to get a grip on what they will do.”
Whitten believes that the Munster game, when Leinster won 30-21 after a superb first 60 minutes of attacking rugby, is the best gauge for the still Joe Schmidt’s side will play.
A team capable of doing damage
While many on Saturday, at the Aviva, were looking for Schmidt’s insight on his side’s Pro12 win, the New Zealander was already turning his focus on the Chiefs.”They put 40 points on Harlequins,” he mused with a shake of the head.
Brian O’Driscoll has also reflected on the battling qualities that have pushed Northampton Saints close and delivered victories over ‘Quins, Saracens and Sale Sharks.
“Against ‘Quins,” said Whitten, “we showed a great fighting spirit as we had played so well and trailed at half-time, then took the lead only to give it back through an intercept try.” He added:
We also showed that we are capable of playing some good rugby and can do it against the best.
“Leinster, on Saturday, will be a step up again but if we can play to our best we’ll give any team a real game.”
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