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Inspirational Peter O'Mahony leads Munster to thrilling win over Exeter

The province have qualified for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup thanks to a superb 26-10 win at Thomond Park.

Munster swept past Exeter at Thomond Park.
Munster swept past Exeter at Thomond Park.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster 26 (34)

Exeter Chiefs 10 (23)

Ciarán Kennedy reports from Thomond Park

WHEN IT ALL comes together like this, it’s hard to beat Champions Cup days at Thomond Park.

This was by no means vintage Munster, and elements of their game still needs plenty of work if they are to challenge the competition’s heavy hitters, but on a day when the province needed to grind out a win against tricky opposition, Johann van Graan’s team defended heroically and sprinkled in some sharp attacking play to turn a five-point aggregate deficit from the first leg into a 11-point advantage.

This 26-10 win at a breezy Thomond Park sees them march into the quarter-finals, where they will host reigning champions Toulouse following the French side’s 30-23 win over Ulster in Belfast this evening.

Munster have yet to confirm fixture details for the quarter-final clash, scheduled for the weekend of 6-8 May, the same weekend Thomond Park is set to host concerts by Ed Sheeran, with the English singer performing at the Limerick stadium on Thursday 5 May and Friday 6 May.

Having come through a gripping encounter at Sandy Park with a 13-8 defeat last week, today the province’s senior men stepped up on their return to help swing the momentum back in Munster’s favour on a thrilling day in Limerick, Joey Carbery scoring 21 of their 26 points and Peter O’Mahony producing another huge shift in the famous red jersey.

Long before kick-off, this had the feel of a big European fixutre at Thomond, even if an attendance of just over 21,000 meant there were notable pockets of empty seats in the upper sections of the East and West Stands. 

It was a shame they weren’t filled for this highly entertaining round of 16 second leg tie, a game which started at a ferocious pace and rarely let off.

Exeter brought the early pressure, but this was a different Munster team to they one they faced last week, and the returning O’Mahony provided the first big moment of the day in winning a turnover penalty under the posts to a massive roar from the home crowd. It set the tone for what would be a remarkable individual effort from the skipper.

Munster went up the field and won another penalty, which Carbery snapped over with ease. Exeter’s advantage was already down to two, and Munster were up and running.

Exeter went again, Stuart Hogg attempting an audacious chip and chase down the left flank only for Damian de Allende to intervene, reading the play smartly. With the next attack Exeter tried their luck down the opposite wing, but a promising move came to an end as Mike Haley forced Olly Woodburn out of touch.

The home side were under pressure, and having done the hard part Munster lost the resulting lineout and were back under the cosh. Exeter turned to their pick and go, and a clever quick-tap penalty from Sam Maunder saw the scrum-half squeeze over despite the attention of his opposite number, Conor Murray. Try Exeter, and the double-blow of losing Murray to a yellow card, the Munster 9 sent to the bin for playing Maunder before he had travelled 10 metres. 

joe-simmonds-is-tackled-by-peter-omahony-and-jack-odonoghue Exeter Chiefs' Joe Simmonds is tackled by Peter O’Mahony and Jack O’Donoghue. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Joe Simmonds then skewed the conversion wide, and another Carbery penalty saw Munster quickly move back into the lead, 6-5 up for the day with 18 minutes played.

At the other end the province were defending with the same intensity on display at Sandy Park, with Jack O’Donoghue the next man in to steal Exeter ball in the red zone as the English side once again left the Munster 22 empty-handed. Murray re-entered the action to bring Munster back to their full complement, the province outscoring their visitors 3-0 during his time in the bin.

Time to throw a few punches. Keith Earls tore up the right wing but a loose pass inside only found Exeter hands. O’Mahony swooped in to win the ball back, Munster’s fifth turnover in the opening 24 minutes.

The influential captain then rose highest to claim the resulting lineout and Munster mauled forward before recycling the ball infield, and as the crowd voiced their anger at an apparent high shot on O’Donoghue, O’Mahony stepped in at scrum-half and slung a low pass to Carbery, who with a quick shuffle of the hips slipped past three defenders to cross. The Munster 10 then clipped over the conversion to push his side 13-5 ahead, and more importantly, 21-18 up on aggregate.

joey-carbery-celebrates-after-scoring-a-try-with-mike-haley Joey Carbery celebrates his first-half try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Already, Munster had managed to record their best score against Exeter, having failed to go higher than the 10-point mark across three previous European encounters with the Devon side.

The home crowd were beginning to enjoy themselves, and another loud roar soon arrived as the big screen flashed up a shot of Chiefs star Jack Nowell in the stand, the injured England international taking in the game with some friends as part of his stag do, his face almost turning as red as the Munster jersey he had been forced to wear for the occasion.

The momentum was now all Munster, Exeter even struggling at the set-piece as they conceded a scrum penalty with five minutes remaining in the first half.

At the next scrum, it was Munster who were pinged. Simmonds stepped up to the tee but sent the ball wide to the right to ironic cheers, the miss signalling the last action of the half, a productive opening 40 which saw Van Graan’s side flip a five-point aggregate deficit into a three-point lead. 

For the second week running, the Chiefs were struggling to find a way through a stubborn Munster defence – only this time, Munster were packing more of a threat with ball in hand. 

And where Munster’s breakdown work had been sloppy at Sandy Park, today they were more clinical and accurate, flanker John Hodnett having a big influence once again.

john-hodnett-is-tackled-by-olly-woodburn-and-stuart-hogg Munster's John Hodnett is tackled by Olly Woodburn and Stuart Hogg of Exeter Chiefs. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The early stages of the second period saw Munster dig deep and hold out another Exeter onslaught, the visitors enjoying 67% of the possession with 47 minutes on the clock. Having held firm for a series of close-range pick-and-goes, Exeter eventually found a way through, Jacques Vermeulen powering over from a close-range penalty. Simmonds sent a straight-forward conversion attempt off the bar, but Exeter were back in the driving seat.

Munster looked to muster up a response, but their next visit to the Exeter 22 saw the Chiefs win a momentum-sapping turnover. Or so it seemed. Left with a lineout just outside their own 22, Exeter saw O’Mahony soar to win his seventh lineout steal of this Champions Cup season – a tournament high.

Van Graan then sent in a new front row as the game began to open up.  

With Exeter pinned back in their own half, O’Mahony made a succession of big tackles before clamping onto Dave Ewers. Another penalty from the captain who was now receiving running treatment from the Munster medical team. Carbery slotted the kick and Munster led by one on the aggregate scoreboard as the game entered the final quarter.

Exeter were struggling to get out of their own half, and under intense Munster pressure they coughed up another penalty shortly after losing the aggregate lead. Carbery stood over the ball just inside the Exeter half, and sent a booming kick between the points. The scoreboard now read 19-10, Munster four clear on aggregate.

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The momentum briefly swung again, but another Exeter attack ended with another O’Mahony turnover as a sensational solo display stirred the crowd into the first chorus of The Fields of Athenry.

Against tired legs, the pitch began to open up. Craig Casey came in and lifted the tempo. Munster swung the ball out to Simon Zebo on the left, the wing doing superbly to send a beautiful offload to De Allende on his inside shoulder, with the big South African diving over to send the stadium into raptures.

Carbery added an excellent conversion and Munster were nine up on aggregate with five minutes to play. Job done, and they could even afford to take O’Mahony off, the inspirational captain leaving to a standing ovation.

There’s been no shortage of frustrating days out for Munster supporters this season, but this was an occasion to be savoured. Munster will hope it proves to be the spark to ignite the rest of their season.

Munster scorers:

Tries: Carbery, De Allende

Penalties: Carbery [4/4]

Conversions: Carbery [2/2]

Exeter scorers –

Tries: Sam Maunder, Vermeulen

Penalty: Simmonds [0/1]

Conversions: Simmonds [0/2]

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Simon Zebo; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray (Craig Casey, 70); Josh Wycherley (Jeremy Loughman, 55), Niall Scannell (Diarmuid Barron 55,), John Ryan (Stephen Archer, 55); Jean Kleyn (Thomas Ahern, 62), Fineen Wycherley; Peter O’Mahony (captain), (Jason Jenkins, 75), John Hodnett (Alex Kendellen, 70), Jack O’Donoghue.

Yellow card: Murray 10

EXETER CHIEFS: Stuart Hogg; Olly Woodburn (Josh Hodge, 73), Henry Slade, Ian Whitten (Tom Gilbert-Hendrickson, 76) , Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds, Sam Maunder (Jack Maunder, 58); Alec Hepburn (Billy Keast, 59), Jack Yeandle (captain) (Jack Innard, 59), Harry Williams (Patrick Schickerling, 59); Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner; Dave Ewers (Santiago Grondona, 76), Jannes Kirsten, Jacques Vermeulen (Richard Capstick, 70).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (Fra) 

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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