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Exeter hold the advantage, but Munster must sense opportunity at Thomond Park

Johann van Graan’s side have the quality to overturn a five-point deficit but need to be more clinical in attack.

Peter O'Mahony returns to captain Munster.
Peter O'Mahony returns to captain Munster.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IF YOU’VE BEEN paying attention to the sports pages over the last while, you’ll have noticed that crumbling empires have been a common theme across various codes as previously dominant forces find themselves staring into uncertain futures.

Remember when the Dublin footballers were so far ahead of the chasing pack that some wanted the county split in two? History-making six-in-a-row All-Ireland champions between 2015-2020, they’ll be playing Division 2 football next year.

Forty-eight hours after defending champions Chelsea crashed out of the Champions League, the deadline passed for final offers in relation to the sale of the club as the curtain falls on the trophy-laden Roman Abramovich years, while the seemingly never-ending sense of chaos which engulfs Manchester United has provided more material for ‘crumbling empire’ feature pieces than perhaps any other sporting entity. 

Throw in Novak Djokovic, too, the Serbian tennis star seeing his record-breaking run at the top of the world rankings come to an end as major tournaments held firm against his vaccination stance.

In sport, as in life, nothing lasts forever.

Enter Munster, one of the great rugby institutions with a history so rich their stadium houses a museum. The past informs everything when it comes to talking Munster, and it’s been over a decade since anyone has needed to dig out the key for the trophy cabinet. With each passing season, you wonder if they look any closer to ending that drought.

Even taking into account their hefty injury list, it was disheartening to see how limited the province looked with ball in hand last weekend as they lost 13-8 to an Exeter Chiefs side who at one stage, found themselves reduced to 13 men. 

This was no isolated incident. The concern surrounding a meek URC defeat at home to Leinster is still fresh in the memory. When they lost to Connacht earlier this season, the normally measured Keith Wood labelled the quality of rugby as “turgid nonsense”. Many felt similar emotions watching last season’s Pro14 final defeat to Leinster. 

That’s why there’s a tension surrounding today’s Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 second leg meeting with Exeter at Thomond Park [KO 3pm, BT Sport 2].

The English side have dropped a couple of levels since winning a memorable double in 2020, yet they know they should already have this fixture wrapped up. Once the masters of the close-quarters power game, they hit double digits for visits to the Munster 22 at Sandy Park last Saturday but left with just two tries to their name. 

Rob Baxter’s side will go into this return leg with the same intent feeling better execution will likely send them through on the back of their five-point advantage. They’ve made just one enforced change, Jannes Kirsten starting ahead of the injured Sam Simmonds.

damien-de-allende-on-the-attack Munster's attack struggled at Sandy Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

For Munster, it’s been another eventful week, one which included the crowning of a new head coach, the quirk of the appointment being that Graham Rowntree will continue as forwards coach until officially taking over the reins in the summer from the man he currently calls his boss. As Rowntree took questions about who is calling the shots and delivered messages of hope to frustrated supporters during his mid-week press conference, you were reminded just how messy this campaign has been.

If Munster lose today it is easy to see the remainder of their season becoming something of a grind. At the time of writing, you can go online and take your pick of tickets for today’s do-or-die fixture, another indication that the more fairweather Munster fan doesn’t see a famous Champions Cup win on the cards, but Thomond Park still holds a certain magic on Champions Cup days.

So, can Van Graan’s team turn around a five-point deficit and advance to the quarter-final stages? Of course they can.

When it comes to Munster in Europe, logic often flies out the window. They possess a remarkable quality of being able to win games almost through sheer force of will, and can produce performances that make you wonder, ‘Where has that been all along?’ They are still a regular fixture in quarter-finals and semi-finals and last season they gave eventual champions Toulouse as good a test as anyone. 

That’s where the frustration comes in. Everyone knows Munster are capable of more, but you never know what you’re going to get.

Their collective defensive effort in holding Exeter to just two tries and an exceptional Stuart Hogg drop goal last week was outstanding to behold. Were they to have found any sense of cohesion in attack, they would have won the game.

Munster found it difficult to create scoring opportunities at Sandy Park, and they need to be smarter and make better decisions in the Exeter half today. In their three meetings with Exeter in this competition, Munster have never managed to score more than 10 points in a game. Opportunities come at a premium.

Their attack has been an obvious issue, but it’s not all about playing free-flowing, stylish rugby either, particularly when it comes to knockout cup rugby. 

That said, it’s also worth remembering that Munster do have the talent and quality to carve a defence open – we’ve been offered enough evidence of that in flashes across the season. Why we haven’t seen more of it is the great black mark against Stephen Larkham’s time running the Munster attack.

Today, they welcome back key senior men as they look to find that extra gear and get over the line.

Joey Carbery is a gifted player who has endured a torrid time with injuries, but he needs to start having more of a decisive say in these big Munster games, while Simon Zebo was re-signed to help ignite the backline on days like this.

In the pack, the return of Peter O’Mahony is as big a boost as Van Graan could have asked for.

The Munster captain’s leadership and experience are vital in games of this magnitude, but he’s so much more than that. O’Mahony still comes up with the big plays in defence and is a nuisance around the breakdown – he leads the tournament’s turnover stats this season with nine. Munster badly struggled in this area last week but he can swing the momentum in his team’s direction. He also tops the charts for lineout steals (6), and will look to be a disruptive influence there.

john-hodnett-during-the-warm-up John Hodnett had a strong game last weekend. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

It’s also pleasing to see some of the younger Munster cohort get another shot to showcase their talents. John Hodnett continues in the back row while Josh Wycherley comes in at loosehead, while Alex Kendellen and Thomas Ahern can make an impact off the bench.

That younger generation play with a refreshing sense of freedom and energy – the sight of Kendellen fronting up to Leinster’s dominance in the recent URC clash a recent example.

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For them, the future is bright and full of possibilities. Munster’s should be too. 

Now officially teed-up as Van Graan’s successor, Rowntree believes the next chapter can bear more resemblance to the Munster he once admired from afar.

But the Van Graan era isn’t over yet, and this fascinating round of 16 tie is delicately in the balance. Fix up the areas that let them down in Devon last weekend and Munster can drag themselves into the next round of this competition, taking the scalp of a team who were kings of Europe just two years ago, and keeping their own name in the hat as the competition really starts to heat up.

Crumbling empire? Perhaps. Or maybe the place just needs a lick of paint. 

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Simon Zebo; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O’Mahony (captain), John Hodnett, Jack O’Donoghue.

Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Jason Jenkins, Thomas Ahern, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Alex Kendellen.

EXETER CHIEFS: Stuart Hogg; Olly Woodburn, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten, Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds, Sam Maunder; Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle (captain), Harry Williams; Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner; Dave Ewers, Jannes Kirsten, Jacques Vermeulen.

Replacements: Jack Innard, Billy Keast, Patrick Schickerling, Richard Capstick, Santiago Grondona, Jack Maunder, Tom Gilbert-Hendrickson, Josh Hodge.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (Fra) 

In the final episode of the series, The Front Row – The42’s new rugby podcast in partnership with Guinness – welcomes comedian Killian Sundermann in to studio. The online funnyman fills us in on his schools rugby days, gaining recognition during the pandemic, making his stand-up debut and travelling around Europe in a van. Click here to subscribe or listen below:


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Ciarán Kennedy

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