Tadhg Beirne convinced Munster can bounce back to winning ways at Exeter

A costly home draw to Bayonne has left Graham Rowntree’s side with ground to make up already in the Champions Cup

Tadhg Beirne is expecting no gifts when Munster arrive at Sandy Park in Exeter next weekend.

Last week’s team captain smiles and nods at the mention of the 2020 Champions Cup winners’ ground and what has now become a daunting challenge.

The Irish lock has been there before. It’s an environment he knows will test players as thoroughly as any.

With the clock in the red, a late conversion from Henry Slade gave Exeter an opening win in this year’s competition over Toulon in Stade Felix Mayol. It shows they haven’t lost any of their cup mettle. The French club, who were 13 points ahead at half-time, are currently second to Racing 92 in the Top 14 table.

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Beating Toulon away is as good as it gets in this competition and the positive energy from that win should make for a contrast in terms of the respective teams’ confidence for the round two clash.

Munster’s disappointment in drawing a game against Bayonne that they should have won made for a downbeat conclusion at Thomond Park. Leaving a few tries out on the paddock is not a luxury they can afford on Sunday.

“It is an incredibly tough place to go,” says Beirne. “Their crowd plays a huge part. It is often very windy down there and it can become a dogfight if you let it, so we are going to have to really implement our own game if we want to come away with a win.

“Again, we will have to look and figure out what went wrong [against Bayonne] and why it went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again next week.

“Mistakes and decision-making. We weren’t winning contacts when we should have been winning contacts. We weren’t playing our game the way we had planned to play it. That is probably the frustrating thing.

“Credit to them, they defended their line incredibly well and they were very physical. They kept knocking us backwards. But it is on us. There was ample opportunities to score, score out wide and we just didn’t really take them.”

Munster can expect more of the same against Exeter.

They stood up to the physical exchange well and brought on some younger players, one aspect of the night that coach Graham Rowntree viewed with some optimism.

Munster had three academy players in the squad, while try scorer Shay McCarthy made his European debut on the right wing. Outside centre Alex Nankivell, one of Munster’s most lively players on the night, did likewise, with Calvin Nash starting at fullback for the first time.

Former academy hooker Eoghan Clarke, who recently rejoined the province on a short-term contract, came on as a replacement for his Munster debut with academy prospects Tony Butler slotting into outhalf and Ben O’Connor off the bench after 19 minutes for his first foray into European rugby.

“We’ll dust ourselves off and we will get ready for next week and I think the team that we had out there put in a serious performance in certain areas, especially the younger lads, the lads who made their first cap,” said Beirne.

“They probably led the way out there and that is going to stand to them next week if they are involved.

“They [Bayonne] managed to stay in the fight and probably get a little bit of belief towards the ends of the game and they certainly took advantage of that. As I said, we had ample opportunities to kill the game but we just couldn’t get over that white line and finish them off.

“Lost a lineout five metres out. I threw a ball straight out into touch, silly, I thought there was [an] advantage but it still doesn’t excuse the mistake of throwing straight into touch.

“You know we had other opportunities five metres out where we were camped on their line, an area that we are usually very good at . . . we weren’t at our best today. That’s the disappointing part.”

The upside for Munster is that they have no choice now but to go for the win, which will focus minds. Hunger and a little desperation and the pressure they have invited in can be energy-giving. But the team also needs to fast-track a cutting edge over the next six days. Beirne thinks it’s possible. He has belief in the players.

“We’ll relish the match,” he says. “I’ve no doubt this group can dust themselves off. I think we are more than capable of going away next week and beating Exeter.”

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Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times