Munster travel to Exeter Chiefs with a sense of Champions Cup urgency

Munster are cornered again as defeat in Sandy Park would leave Exeter almost out of reach in pool three

Champions Cup Pool 3: Exeter Chiefs v Munster, Sunday,Sandy Park, 1.0 (Live on UTV and TNT Sports)

Before last weekend’s first round, it was far from inconceivable to envisage Munster travelling to the English south coast with five points on the board and Exeter on zero points. But the Chiefs’ last-ditch win in Toulon and Munster’s anti-climactic draw at home with Bayonne has changed all that.

Suddenly Munster are cornered again as defeat here would leave Exeter almost out of reach in pool three and Munster facing a difficult trek to Toulon in January followed by a home game against a rejuvenated Northampton.

Munster were undermined by poor set-piece foundations, notably at scrum time, where their “success rate” of 66.7% was the poorest of any team in round one. But there seemed to be a hint of complacency as well, not least some decision-making in apparent pursuit of a bonus point at 17-10 ahead. The Exeter brains trust will also have noted Munster’s ongoing problems with their maul defence.

Graham Rowntree’s response has been to make six personnel changes and three positional switches, although they remain bedevilled by injuries. Shane Daly, Antoine Frisch and Craig Casey come into the backline with Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer and Jack O’Donoghue starting in the pack.


Alex Nankivell moves to inside centre, Calvin Nash reverts to wing and with Fineen Wycherley unavailable “after picking up a knock in training” and Edwin Edogbo (neck) still sidelined, Gavin Coombes moves into the secondrow, an especially big ask if required to do so on the tight-head side. However, Peter O’Mahony is still sidelined with a shoulder injury.

New signing Oli Jager returns to the match-day squad and is in line for his Champions Cup debut, as is last season’s under-20 star, Brian Gleeson from a fairly callow bench which features another 19-year-old academy player in the exciting Ben O’Connor, as well as some welcome experience in Conor Murray and Rory Scannell.

For his part, Rob Baxter (the club’s rock) has made just two changes to his starting line-up, with flanker Lewis Pearson and winger Olly Woodburn, an early replacement in Toulon, promoted from the bench. The former Leinster duo of Jack Dunne and Rory O’Loughlin are among their replacements.

Previous meetings between these two, when Exeter were in their pomp, were taut arm wrestles. A 10-10 draw here in round one five seasons ago was followed by Munster’s 9-7 win in Thomond Park, while two seasons ago they met in the Round of 16, with Munster losing 13-8 in Exeter before winning the second leg 26-10.

But though regarded as the best-run club in the troubled Premiership, financial imperatives led to a flight of wild geese proportions at the end of last season.

Only two starters, Henry Slade and Jacques Vermeulen, survive from the starting XV which beat Racing 92 in the final four seasons ago when Exeter sealed their first Champions Cup title, and the last by an English club. Nine of that starting side moved or retired at the end of last season.

Yet some of Exeter’s results this season, specifically that unlikely and dramatic win in Toulon – the reigning Challenge Cup champions and currently flying high in the Top 14 – commands respect, as Munster defence coach Denis Leamy admits.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on them from afar. They are people in the building that will do it more than I, for example. I try to deal with the challenge that’s in front of us more often than not.

“But we’re aware that they’ve been having a good season. Going to Toulon and winning certainly gets you on high alert. Respectfully, that’s a big win and no matter what way you dress it up or dress it down that’s something that you’ve got to say “fair dues to” and respect and definitely having to go to their home place is a challenge.

“You think of European venues and Sandy Park is definitely one of the places that you say is a proper rugby stadium, a great crowd, bloody good team and when I think of Exeter it’s a physical challenge. Their ability to hold the ball for 30 phases if they have to and just grind you down.

“They’re big men who challenge you on the ground, that’s what immediately comes into your head. So, physically we’ve got to be very, very good and how we, I suppose, deal with their body weight will be a big thing.”

Exeter Chiefs: Tom Wyatt; Olly Woodburn, Henry Slade, Joe Hawkins, Ben Hammersley; Harvey Skinner, Tom Cairns; Scott Sio, Dan Frost, Ehren Painter, Rus Tuima, Dafydd Jenkins (capt), Lewis Pearson, Jacques Vermeulen, Greg Fisilau.

Replacements: Max Norey, Nika Abuladze, Marcus Street, Jack Dunne, Ross Vintcent, Stu Townsend, Ollie Devoto, Rory O’Loughlin.

Munster: Shane Daly; Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Alex Nankivell, Seán O’Brien; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Gavin Coombes, Tadhg Beirne (Capt); Tom Ahern, John Hodnett, Jack O’Donoghue.

Replacements: Eoghan Clarke, Josh Wycherley, Oli Jager, Brian Gleeson, Alex Kendellen, Conor Murray, Rory Scannell, Ben O’Connor.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal

Forecast: Munster to win.

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times