Sean Farrell reports from Exeter
AN EPIC ENCOUNTER called for heroic efforts in all shapes and sizes: the unsung, the expected, unexpected and the oft-derided.
Any team in the world would suffer for the loss of Conor Murray, but Duncan Williams appeared to instill a particular sort of gallows humour among Munster fans making their way to Sandy Park for the Heineken Champions Cup pool 2 opener.
Johann van Graan made light of questions around the scrum-half pre-match, backing the 32-year-old’s experience to play a vital role. His faith was rewarded with a high rate of interest.
Long before kick-off Williams could see the challenge the conditions would present, in the warm-up he tested the wind by setting box kicks away at little more than 45 degrees. Some held up high in the wind, others flew along the trajectory. The swirling wind made it impossible to predict.
Game on, scrum-cap on, the scrum-half so often made himself the most tenacious of chasers for his own kick. When the wind batted them back, he flung himself to the turf and scrambled after them. When another chaser spilled he was on the scene in a flash to regather the bounce.
Crucially, when Exeter Chiefs’ most potent attacking threat Henry Slade created an opening deep in the second half, setting Matt Kvesis and Phil Dollman away, Williams ran hard into the wind and extinguished the expectant home cheers with a try-saving tackle
It was a day that decreed that not many outside the half-backs would pass. And it was a day that forced scrum-halves to become dogged flankers.
“He was excellent today,” said Van Graan of his number 9, “with the pressure that was on him today, in that first half in particular.
“We had to go zig-zag to get ourselves into good positions. His kicking was excellent, his defence was excellent.
There were small little things too. His counter rucking, clipping the nine and forcing a turnover, it was a really good 75-minute shift from him and I am really glad for him.”
Van Graan is big on the little things, and he looks to minute, lesser-spotted details even for the individual thrust into the limelight after that enormous collective effort.
Tadhg Beirne was very much a hero on the other side of the scale to Williams.
Brought back from exile to play Test rugby and a European player of the Year nominee, he was expected to make a difference. Consider that his former club Scarlets lost at home on the same day his new employers claimed a hard-fought draw. It’s fair to say he hasn’t disappointed.
The Chiefs pack signalled that he was a man they needed to stop in the early minutes when that trademark blue scrumcap came flying out of a rolling maul. His cap was returned, Beirne kept his head and consistently found gainlines and exerted his outstanding influence on the breakdown, maul and line-out.
“(Beirne) was man of the match, but there are small things that maybe people don’t see,” notes Van Graan and his point again shows that there is inexperience and a high ceiling for this Munster side.
“It’s his first season running the line-out. He did it against a quality contesting side like Exeter, in this wind.
“All credit to him on that. His poaching was so good today and that line he ran in the first half, he almost scored.
“He gives you an all-round performance and the biggest thing he gives is an 80 performance. He doesn’t seem to stop.
“For a ‘five lock’ to work around the corner like that is unreal and it is great for us to have him.”
After forcing a draw at the home of the form team in Europe. Pool 2 leaders Gloucester are next up for Van Graan’s side in Thomond Park. That is Munster’s chance to take progression to the knock-out stages firmly into their hands.
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