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Munster spirit is alive and well ahead of intriguing Exeter rematch

The province put in a major shift in defeat to Exeter but their attack leaves much to be desired.

The Munster squad in a huddle after the game.
The Munster squad in a huddle after the game.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHERE TO START with a gripping, at times frantic encounter in which the losing team will be the happier of the two ahead of next weekend’s rematch?

Yesterday’s Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 first leg clash between Exeter Chiefs and Munster at Sandy Park was a game in which the province looked like they could be on their way to a hiding, only to flip the contest into one they could have won, before almost seeing all their heart work trickle down the drain in the dying moments.

It was breathless stuff as Munster came away from Devon with a five-point deficit to chase at Thomond Park next Saturday. In light of the spirit on display yesterday, it’s fully within their reach.

Decimated by injuries and illness, Munster were chasing the game with barely five minutes played as Exeter cut through their defence, Stuart Hogg finishing a fine team move to put the hosts 5-0 up. 

As Johann van Graan’s side struggled at the scrum and the breakdown, it only felt a matter of time before Exeter further enforced their superiority on the scoreboard. 

Yet slowly, it became clear that the game would not be as straightforward as Rob Baxters’ side may have hoped as their visits to the Munster 22 kept ending with them leaving empty-handed. Luckily for them, Munster looked alarmingly blunt in attack as they failed to trouble their opponents with ball in hand.

Munster’s repeated indiscipline eventually saw replacement Jack O’Sullivan yellow-carded just before half-time, his exit leading to Exeter eventually crossing for try number two via Jacques Vermeulen. But with Joe Simmonds missing both conversion attempts, Exeter only had a 10-0 lead to show at the break for all their dominance.

stuart-hogg-tackled-by-jeremy-loughman-and-jack-odonoghue Stuart Hogg scored eight of Exeter's 13 points. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Over on BT Sport, the TV cameras in the Munster dressing room caught an animated Graham Rowntree laying down the law with his forwards.

“The big message was we needed to be better at the scrum, and from the forwards points of view we needed to be better around the breakdown,” explained Munster head coach Van Graan.

“From an attack point of view we needed to keep onto the ball more, and JP (Ferreira, defence coach) said from the defensive point of view we needed to get off the line. I thought we did that well.

From my perspective, the main point was to sort out our discipline, up our physicality, get some territory and finish our opportunities, and I thought we did that really well in the second half.”

After the restart Munster survived a period of intense Exeter pressure to outscore their hosts 3-8, a Ben Healy penalty and Shane Daly try bringing the province back into the game either side of Hogg’s monster drop-goal.

Somehow, that booming kick proved to be Exeter’s sole score of the second 40. It wasn’t for lack of trying – Conor Murray and Keith Earls both doing brilliantly to prevent what looked like certain Exeter tries before the 2020 champions were held up over the line as the clock hit the red.

While Munster supporters will hope their side can play with more ambition back at Thomond Park, they’ll know exactly what Exeter will bring. If Munster are to advance, they’ll need to survive another couple on Exeter onslaughts in their 22.

“We see them as the very best in the 22,” Van Graan continued.

“It seemed that early in the season they kind of went away from that, but the last few weeks, if you look at the Leicester and Bath games, we knew that’s what was coming and they are the very best at that. I thought we defended that quite well, but they applied pressure and we conceded twice.”

jonny-gray-competes-in-the-air-at-the-lineout-with-thomas-ahern Exeter's Jonny Gray competes in the air at the lineout with Thomas Ahern of Munster. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

Given the circumstances, Munster will be very happy to take this result back to Thomond, although their lack of any real cutting edge in possession was once again striking. Far too often, Van Graan’s side looked predictable in attack and their accuracy and execution will need to be much improved in Limerick next weekend.

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“We’ll go back and learn from this, so will Exeter,” Van Graan added.

“Two clubs that respect each other. A lot of small margins in the game. We need to be accurate for 80 minutes, we weren’t accurate enough in the first 40 today. Then (next week) it’s going to come down to who uses that one opportunity that they get which might swing it.

“It’s fascinating to be part of a two-leg knock-out. In terms of the research we’ve done, you can’t win it in the first leg, but you can certainly lose it in the first leg and we feel we’re still in it next week at home.

“We knew that the scrum penalty and then the advantage they got (at the end), we needed to keep them out because a seven-point swing there might be massive in the context of next week.”  

That old Munster spirit and doggedness in defence is alive and well, but there is major work still to be done as their attack continues to frustrate. The province will need to be much improved if they are to extend their European season beyond the weekend. 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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