Exeter Chiefs 10
Sean Farrell reports from Sandy Park
FRANTIC, MESMERISING, PUNISHING.
Munster and Exeter played out a Test match in all but name as they matched each other to end up with a draw to open their Heineken Champions Cup campaign.
The two points earned for Munster came thanks to CJ Stander’s 64th-minute try and a dogged defensive effort to deny the Premiership leaders on the try-line at the death.
The southern province came to Devon with a blueprint for victory, bullishly attacking the Chiefs’ much-trumpeted maul, and created enough chances to force the full four-point away win, but it would not materialise.
Already without one world class operator in Conor Murray, Munster lost another in the minutes before kick-off as Keith Earls was forced to withdraw injured, paving the way for Darren Sweetnam to parachute from travelling extra directly into the starting XV.
In a swirling post-Callum wind, neither side could hoist up contestable balls with any degree of confidence that they would retain it. It led to the odd chaotic scene and endless examples of commitment as players in red and sky blue flung themselves to the turf chasing a loose ball.
A Phil Dollman drop led to a sparkling Joey Carbery pass which created an opening. Back the other way, Andrew Conway’s spill and the chase to retrieve it from Matt Kvesic led the Chiefs towards the first score of the day.
Munster spoke all week about how much they were looking forward to this challenge and they confronted their hosts head on. While playing into a vicious wind, they piled pressure on through an exhaustive 28 phase first-half stretch, ended with the signal of an attacking scrum. Off that platform, Tadhg Beirne went to work with ball in hand, barrelling through hard yards before the award of a penalty.
Carbery – brilliantly creative throughout – ripped passes right, then left, in the hope of turning three into seven but there was no way through.
Indeed, even the three-pointer didn’t feel straightforward despite the tee being planted 15 metres directly in front of the posts – as it had been for Gareth Steenson’s opener. Carbery didn’t spare the boot and pulled Munster to deserved parity just after the half-hour mark.
Early in the half it had been Munster celebrating scrum dominance, with all 15 players getting involved in celebrations when a penalty was won on their own 10-metre line. Before 40 elapsed, though, the balance of power was back with the hosts. The set-piece spurred the pack into action and they pinned Munster into their 22 and then picked and drove to within inches of the line.
All 30 players were drawn within 20 metres of the posts, but the Chiefs didn’t need to seek a way around Munster as Luke Cowan-Dickie forced his way over.
It might have gotten even worse for Johann van Graan’s side had referee Jerome Garces taken a dim view of Andrew Conway’s chargedown attempt of Steenson’s successful conversion. The crowd bayed for blood, Garces took a look at the wing’s high elbow and waved the claim away.
There was no let-up in intensity of this enthralling Pool 2 clash as Munster emerged 10-3 down in the second half. Anything but.
An early storm was weathered after Don Armand broke clear, supported by his back row brethren. Munster scrambled brilliantly to extinguish the danger and Beirne helped force a turnover for James Cronin to bulldoze back to halfway.
Munster’s best portion of the game followed. First, they again flexed their mauling muscles and had travelling fans celebrating what looked like a try for Chris Cloete. The wait would go on, however, as Garces penalised the maul for blocking as the openside splintered away.
Munster’s turnover threat delivered another golden opportunity minutes later with Carbery, Dan Goggin and Mike Haley raiding space on the left and Stander forcing a big gainline before Peter O’Mahony’s attempted offload in front of the posts was snaffled by Santiago Cordero.
Exeter’s next attack made that seem like it would be a moment to rue all week back in UL, but after a scintillating burst from Slade, Duncan Williams raced back to make a try-saving on Dollman just as the majority of the 12,749 in Sandy Park began celebrating.
Far from pulling clear as they have done in all six Premiership fixtures so far this season, Exeter were pegged back. A kick out on the full invited Munster in and they refused to leave the 22 empty-handed a third time in the second half. Tommy O’Donnell battled after the tackle to make valuable yards and CJ Stander provided the crucial muscle to ground a try. Left of the posts, Carbery had to be on target, and he kicked beautifully into the wind to level the scores at 10-10.
An arm-wrestle followed and starters and replacements from both sides were left strewn on the field as the massive physicality of this meeting was brought to bear.
As the clock ticked down, it was the Chiefs who mounted one late, desperate push for the win. But they were met at every turn by a crushing Munster tackle. The red shirts just kept coming up off the ground, asking another clash through 22 phases and ultimately celebrated the final whistle as they denied the Chiefs inches from the try-line.
A punishing way to open a campaign, but unquestionably a rewarding one for Munster.
Tries: L Cowan-Dickie
Conversions: G Steenson (1/1)
Penalties: G Steenson (1/1)
Tries: CJ Stander
Conversions: J Carbery (1/1)
Penalties: J Carbery (1/1)
Exeter Chiefs: 15. Phil Dollman, 14. Jack Nowell, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Ian Whitten, 11. Santiago Cordero, 10. Gareth Steenson (c), 9. Stu Townsend,
1. Ben Moon (Alec Hepburn ’57), 2. Luke Cowan-Dickie (Jack Yeandle ’57), 3. Harry Williams (Tom Francis ’57), 4. Dave Dennis (Ollie Atkins ’42), 5. Sam Skinner (Tom Lawday ’64), 6. Dave Ewers, 7. Don Armand, 8. Matt Kvesic.
Munster Rugby: 15. Mike Haley, 14. Andrew Conway, 13. Dan Goggin (Sam Arnold ’60 (JJ Hanrahan ’68)) , 12. Rory Scannell, 11. Darren Sweetnam, 10. Joey Carbery, 9. Duncan Williams (Neil Cronin ’73): 1. Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin ’45), 2. Niall Scannell (Rhys Marshall ’57), 3. Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’45), 4. Jean Kleyn (Billy Holland ’61), 5. Tadhg Beirne, 6. Peter O’Mahony (c), 7. Chris Cloete (Tommy O’Donnell ’60), 8. CJ Stander.
Referee: Jérome Garcès
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