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Ben Brady/INPHO Munster's Chris Farrell is tackled by Sam Simmonds and Joe Simmonds.
# still in it
Battling Munster dig deep to keep Champions Cup hopes alive with five-point defeat in Exeter
The province produced a huge defensive effort in a gripping 13-8 loss at Sandy Park.

Exeter Chiefs 13

Munster 8

Ciarán Kennedy reports from Sandy Park

IT WAS ALWAYS going to be a big ask for a depleted Munster side to get a result at Sandy Park today, but the province only have a five-point deficit to overturn in Limerick next week following a battling defeat to Exeter Chiefs in which the province dug deep to frustrate their hosts across a gripping contest.

Having gone into today’s clash without Ireland internationals Tadhg Beirne, Gavin Coombes, Andrew Conway, and Dave Kilcoyne, before losing captain Peter O’Mahony and Joey Carbery later in the week, Munster were subjected to further disruption this morning as Simon Zebo and replacement hooker Diarmuid Barron were ruled out due to acute gastroenteritis. Travelling reserve Shane Daly took Zebo’s place in the starting team, while academy hooker Scott Buckley came onto the bench in place of Barron.

With so many frontliners missing, Munster’s mission was to keep this Champions Cup round of 16 contest alive ahead of next Saturday’s return leg at Thomond Park.

On a sunny day in Devon, Munster put in a major defensive effort and while they initially lacked the power to match Exeter in the physical battles and the smarts to stretch their hosts in the brief passages where they did manage build some momentum, the second half saw the province claw their way back into the game through pure grit and determination.

Over 10,000 supporters made their way into Sandy Park for this afternoon kick-off and while Munster’s travelling fans arrived in fine voice, it took the hosts just six minutes to land the first blow, striking from a free kick following a lineout just inside the Munster half. Ian Whitten ran a smart line which saw Chris Farrell bite in, opening up the space to allow O’Flaherty burn up the pitch before working the ball out to Stuart Hogg, who had the pace to finish a fine team move, with Joe Simmonds sending the resulting conversion wide.

stuart-hogg-runs-in-to-score-his-sides-first-try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Stuart Hogg scored Exeter's opening try. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Munster were seeing plenty of the ball in those early stages, but a worrying trend soon emerged as Exeter began to dominate the breakdown battle, the visitors continuously losing possession after contact as support players failed to arrive on time.

Exeter were soon applying all the pressure, but Munster were just about keeping them at bay, John Hodnett doing his bit with some excellent individual work.

By the time the clock ticked past 20 minutes, Exeter had enjoyed 73% of the territory while Munster had turned the ball over three times and conceded six penalties.

Munster were yet to visit the Exeter 22 and were living on the edge in front of their own line as Rob Baxter’s team pounded towards the tryline, a massive effort by Damien de Allende and Chris Farrell managing to deny Dave Ewers shortly before the half-hour mark, while Conor Murray scrambled well to keep Jack Yeandle out. 

Exeter must have wondered how the score still only read 5-0.

Ben Healy, starting in place of the injured Carbery, would have loved to showcase his attacking talents with ball in hand – particularly as Ireland head coach Andy Farrell was one of the interested onlookers in the crowd – but for the most part he was limited to using his big right boot to relieve pressure.

andy-farrell-attends-the-game Ben Brady / INPHO Andy Farrell was in the crowd at Sandy Park. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Not for the first time this season, Munster looked limited and predictable in attack, save for some smart work by Shane Daly, who was the most lively of the Munster backs. Sloppy errors in possession were proving costly in the wide channels as Exeter dominating the breakdown.

Healy eventually managed to throw a looping skip pass out wide after a Mike Haley break brought Munster into the Exeter 22 for the first time, but the move broke down with another Exeter turnover. 

Munster’s discipline was proving to be a major issue and as the count against rose to nine – eight of which came at the breakdown – replacement Jack O’Sullivan, introduced as Alex Kendellen went for a HIA, was shown yellow by referee Pierre Brousset.

Exeter went to the corner and mauled forward from the lineout before moving the ball infield, with O’Flaherty and Ewels both carrying well as Munster again held firm before Jacques Vermulen powered over for Exeter’s second try, a killer blow on the stroke of half-time. Simmonds again dragged his conversion wide, and Exeter took a 10-0 lead into the break.

A massive 40 minutes lay ahead as Munster looked to keep their Champions Cup ambitions alive.

With Kendellen failing his HIA, 14-man Munster played out the opening minutes of the second period camped inside their 22 before O’Sullivan re-entered the action.

They continued to put in a heroic defensive effort, with Murray again doing brilliantly to win a breakdown penalty on the line. From 10 visits to the Munster 22, Exeter still had just two tries to their name.

mike-haley-is-tackled-by-jacques-vermeulen Ben Brady / INPHO Munster's Mike Haley is tackled by Jacques Vermeulen of Exeter Chiefs. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Frustrated by Munster’s doggedness, Exeter began to become a little sloppy on the ball themselves, O’Sullivan swooping in for a big turnover which allowed the province launch their first meaningful attack of the second half.

However from the resulting lineout, Niall Scannell’s throw was spilled and Exeter were back on the offensive. They went to the skies, and a high tackle on Murray allowed Munster go straight back into the Exeter 22.

This time the lineout was clean and Munster mauled forward, before recycling the ball infield as they tried to get on the scoreboard. Exeter eventually coughed up a penalty which allowed Healy kick an easy three points, Munster’s first score of the game arriving with almost an hour played.

In need of some creative spark, Van Graan sent in Craig Casey for Murray, who had proven to be one of Munster’s big leaders in defence across an excellent display. 

Exeter’s momentum was further stalled when they lost Olly Woodburn to a yellow card, the winger’s forearm crashing into Scannell’s face during an attempted clearout.

In the next passage of play, Patrick Schickerling followed Woodburn into the bin and Exeter suddenly were down to 13.

For the first time of the evening, a tension fell over Sandy Park as Munster set up for the five-metre lineout. This was Munster’s time to strike, but they were pinged for obstruction and a golden opportunity to change the complexion of the game went to waste.

Or so it seemed. Hogg pushed Exeter’s lead back out to 10 points with a booming drop-goal – the first of his career, and for a moment it felt game, set and match Chiefs.

Then Munster struck. The province put together a series of passes around the half-way line, seemingly going nowhere before Henry Slade shot out in attempt to steal an intercept from Keith Earls’ fingertips. Earls came away with the ball and surged forward, before feeding Chris Farrell who in turn played in Daly, the winger speeding through to dot down. Healy skewed his conversion wide, but Munster were back in it.

They went again, a series of pick-and-goes coming up just short, Casey appearing to squeeze through before a TMO review decided otherwise.

With 10 minutes to play, Munster trailed by five points and were playing all the rugby. They carried hard at Exeter – who were back to 14 men – in numbers but couldn’t find a way through, before Jack Maunder got in to steal the ball from De Allende, a turnover which generated as big a cheer from the home support as any of the day’s scores.

Sandy Park was rocking, and Exeter thought they had a third try as Woodburn burst down the right wing, only for an outstanding try-saving tackle from Earls, who covered a huge amount of ground to chase down the Exeter wing and force the knock-on, with some help from Farrell.

Exeter had time for one last charge but Jonny Gray was held up by a mass of Munster bodies.

It typified Munster’s effort across a gruelling 80 minutes. Up against it, they somehow managed to frustrate their hosts and claw their way back into the contest.

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They bring a five-point deficit back to Limerick next week. Somehow, it’s still all to play for.

Exeter scorers:

Tries – Hogg, Vermeulen

Conversions – J Simmonds [0/2]

Drop-goal – Hogg

Munster scorers:

Try – Daly

Conversion – Healy (0/1)

Penalty – Healy (1/0)

EXETER CHIEFS: Stuart Hogg; Olly Woodburn, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten (Harvey Skinner 68), Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds, Sam Maunder (Jack Maunder, 60); Alec Hepburn (Ben Moon, 56), Jack Yeandle (captain) (Jack Innard, 65), Harry Williams (Patrick Schickerling 52); Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner; Dave Ewers (Jannes Kirsten, 57), Jacques Vermeulen (Richard Capstick, 57), Sam Simmonds.

Replacement not used: Josh Hodge.

Yellow card: Woodburn 60, Schickerling 61

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Ben Healy, Conor Murray (Craig Casey, 62); Jeremy Loughman (Josh Wycherley, 60), Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer (John Ryan 49); Jean Kleyn (Thomas Ahern, 65), Fineen Wycherley; Jack O’Donoghue (captain), John Hodnett (Jason Jenkins 74), Alex Kendellen (Jack O’Sullivan 29 HIA).

Replacements not used: Scott Buckley, Rory Scannell.

Yellow card: O’Sullivan 37

Referee: Pierre Brousset

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