'We’re a team that never goes away' - Munster's fighting spirit tees up fascinating Exeter rematch

Johann van Graan feels Munster’s 13-8 loss in Devon has set the two teams up for a massive second leg tie at Thomond Park.

Munster's Jack O'Sullivan with Josh Hodge of Exeter Chiefs.
Munster's Jack O'Sullivan with Josh Hodge of Exeter Chiefs.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT’S A STRANGE thing to leave a stadium feeling the losing team will have been happier with the result, but it was clear that Munster’s travelling supporters were more content with the 13-8 scoreline in Exeter’s favour than their hosts.

Saturday’s gripping encounter at Sandy Park was an odd, fascinating Champions Cup round of 16 tie where Munster spent much of the contest on the ropes, and were once again concerningly poor in possession.

Yet a remarkable defensive effort, which included massive contributions from John Hodnett – who won three turnovers – Conor Murray and Keith Earls, to name but a few, saw Munster sufficiently frustrate Exeter to take a five-point deficit back to Thomond Park. 

It was a draining, high intensity battle, but while Exeter’s visits to the Munster 22 tipped into double digits, they only managed to cross twice, with Stuart Hogg’s stunning drop goal their sole score during a second half where Munster finally began to find some cohesion going forward, Shane Daly crossing in the corner while Craig Casey saw another golden opportunity go to waste as the Chiefs were briefly reduced to 13 men.

“It’s a one-score game,” said head coach Johann van Graan. 

“We focused a lot on the history and what we know about Exeter. They’re a team that never goes away and we’re a team that never goes away.

Our theme was we’re going to fight for 80 minutes, which I believe we did and then be in the game for next week. It’s half-time now and we’re five points down. It’s one try and we’ve got to get the conversion to win the game. A fascinating battle.”

Munster’s blunt attack remains a major issue, with their first half display at Sandy Park particularly alarming. While heavily depleted through injuries and illness, the province rarely looked capable of finding a way into the Exeter 22 due as individual errors and poor decision let them down.

Yet an exceptional defensive effort kept them in the game as Munster absorbed wave after wave of Exeter pressure. It was a marked improvement from the limp showing against Leinster seven days previously, where the province leaked four tries to their great rivals at Thomond Park. 

“Last week’s defence wasn’t good enough from our side,” Van Graan explained. 

We haven’t conceded four tries in two and a half years, so we were unhappy with that. The main thing from my side that I challenged our group was that we never give up. These guys fought until literally the ball was on the floor. The satisfying thing from a coaching point of view is that we stayed in the battle. This is a fun place to come to. The fact that we stayed in this game mentally is big for next week.”

In the end possession was surprisingly evenly shared, Exeter enjoying 47% of the ball in total, despite their early dominance. It certainly felt like more. Munster also made more passes [161 v 125] and carries [103 v 85] than their hosts, while it was the Chiefs who expended more energy throwing themselves into tackles [154 v 121].

The problem was, for all their eventual possession Munster rarely looked threatening bar that brief rally in the second period.

shane-daly-scores-a-try Shane Daly scored Munster's only try at Sandy Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The province were once again desperately predictable in attack and for the most part Exeter were able to comfortably soak up anything they threw at them. The other major issue was their breakdown work, Exeter dominating this area of the game in the first half as Munster’s penalty count rose, before the visitors got a better handle on it in the second period. They will need to be much sharper at Thomond Park and offer Exeter less entries into the game.

They will also hope to have a smoother run-in to the rematch. After losing a string of key players to injury Munster saw Simon Zebo and Diarmuid Barron ruled out due to illness on the morning of the game. Peter O’Mahony and Joey Carbery could resume training as early as today, as attention turns to a massive return leg in Limerick.

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Yet even with so many senior men missing, Munster were able to dig deep and bring home a good result which keeps them right in the fight. For all their ongoing flaws, there was no questioning the effort and application at Sandy Park.

“I think the Munster spirit is alive and well,” Van Graan added. 

“It’s not (just) the young guys, it is the whole group; young guys, old guys, Keith Earls making that tackle, Conor Murray and then you have guys like (John) Hodnett, (Alex) Kendellen, (Scott) Buckley, who learned two hours beforehand that he was going to be on the bench but didn’t get onto the pitch but just the next man up.

“We as a group are very tight. We have incredible home support that came here. The Munster support is incredible and we saw that again today. This is a club that will always stand up and fight.

“The scenes we saw here today when we got off the bus, people singing… Even when we came out after half time we knew we needed to come punching and we did. From a Munster fan base point of view they are always there and we are really looking forward to going into a European knockout game at Thomond Park. A scene is set for a massive battle next week against a team and a club that we respect a lot in Exeter.”  

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Ciarán Kennedy

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