Munster let lead slip through their fingers against Exeter

Double-whammy turned game on its head before a late sucker punch denied Munster second bonus point

Champions Cup: Exeter 32 Munster 24

An hour into this highly eventful class between two former winners of the Champions Cup, Munster looked reasonably well set. They had four tries in the bag, had conceded one, had been the better side and had relatively becalmed the sold-out Sandy Park. Yet still their lead was only 11 points and a double-whammy turned the game on its head before a late sucker punch even denied them a second bonus point.

Despite scoring some lovely tries, making 12 line breaks to five, and producing a hatload of fine individual performances, notably Tom Ahern, John Hodnett and Jack Crowley, and pretty much the entire backline, Munster will ruefully reflect on how they let this one slip through their fingers.

They were undone as much by errors and some set-piece malfunctions as anything else, which initially kept a callow Exeter within two scores without them doing very much save for their famed power plays.


They will also have left Exeter is a state of high dudgeon over some contentious decisions by the overbearing Mathieu Reynal in his 9-7 penalty count to the home side.

Munster met Exeter’s all-or-nothing, narrow, uber quick-blitz defence with their own high-risk, high reward determination to find the edges whenever possible, be it with some sumptuous and varied kicking by the classy Jack Crowley, or a mixture of pullbacks to deeper lying attackers, tip-ons, offloads and long floated passes.

While they had some joy in achieving that, frequently by the time the ball reached the edge under fierce pressure, the receiver was standing still or Munster had gone backwards to go forwards. They were also prepared to plenty of rugby in the middle third of the pitch.

The tone was set from the very off as Henry Slade ended the first Munster attack, but Tom Ahern’s ensuing lineout was a pivotal moment before Crowley’s clever kick over the blitz found grace and bounced high, for Shane Daly to make the tackle on Tom Wyatt and Seán O’Brien followed up to earn a penalty into the corner in the jackal.

From Gavin Coombes’ take, Munster went to work, the latter steaming on to on to the ball and John Hodnett also carrying, before Craig Casey’s long floated pass gave Nash a routine touchdown in the corner. Crowley converted.

But an Exeter counter off one poor kick-chase and Tadhg Beirne being done at the breakdown led to one of those trademark Chiefs’ power plays off the penalty to the corner before Dan Frost dummied and burrowed past Jack O’Donoghue to score. Slade converted.

Nash’s footwork was a prominent feature of the game, and earned an attacking penalty which was overthrown, before Crowley again located space with a kick pass to the touchline-hugging Tom Ahern. In one dexterous movement on the run, Ahern gathered the ball off one bounce and stepped Tom Wyatt exactly on halfway and athletically gobbled up the ground to finish wide out.

After a rare Crowley miss, even from the touchline, Slade trimmed the lead with a penalty against John Hodnett for placing his hands on the deck when he had clearly made an entirely legitimate steal.

Munster failed to make one more entry count, Tom Cairns picking off Crowley’s skip pass, but back they came. Using a penalty advantage, Casey stepped, sniped and offloaded to Ahern and from his pass Crowley tipped the ball deftly back inside to Daly, whose skip pass led to a fine finish by Antoine Frisch.

Crowley landed the touchline conversion and though Casey’s kick out on the full led to one final assault, Daly’s try-saving tackle on Jacques Vermeulen was augmented by Beirne winning a trademark turnover.

Alas, Beirne was again harshly penalised at the breakdown on the resumption for Slade to somehow, and unnervingly, make it a one-score game. But after Coombes won the first of two penalties in the jackal, Munster high-risk attacking game yielded a high reward.

From Beirne’s pullback, nerveless passing, in the face of defenders, by Crowley and Alex Nankivell found Frish on the edge, before Munster again released Daly on the same left flank. With the Chiefs stretched, Jack O’Donoghue carried hard to offload to Archer, before Frisch’s dummy and one-handed offload released Diarmuid Barron for another gallop through the middle.

Jeremy Loughman made the crucial clearout and from the ninth phase Casey and Alex Nankivell put Daly over in the corner for the bonus-point try.

Yet Crowley missed his second of four conversions from the right touchline and Conor Murray’s kick out on the full, Ahern was penalised at the breakdown, leading to another Exeter power play and close-range finish by Ross Vintcent.

Almost immediately, Stu Townsend’s box kick found grass and bounced wickedly several times for Nash, Jack Dunne making both the tackle and picking off the winger’s attempted offload for Crowley to score. Another Slade conversion and suddenly a 24-13 Munster lead had turned into a 24-27 deficit.

Munster were on the ropes but Barron was immovable in winning a relieving penalty and Harvey Skinner was fortunate not to be carded for a high hit on Crowley. To compound this, Skinner’s subsequent hit dislodged the ball from Conor Murray and Exeter soon bludgeoned the Munster scrum.

With one last throw of the dice, Crowley crosskicked to Daly but a few phases later, with two lazy runners and Mathieu Raynal, an excessive presence until the last, Murray’s pass was picked off by Slade for an intercept try which denied Munster a second bonus point.

Scoring sequence: 7 mins Nash try, Crowley con 0-7; 16 mins Frost try, Slade con 7-7; 23 mins Ahern try 7-12; 27 mins Slae pen 10-12; 37 mins Frisch try, Crowley con 10-19; (half-time 10-19); 46 mins Slade pen 13-19; 50 Daly try 13-24; 64 mins Vintcent try, Slade con 20-24; 65 mins Dunne try, Slade con 27-24; 79 mins Slade try 32-24.

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 for Frost, Nika Abuladze for Sio, Marcus Street for Painter, Stu Townsend for Cairns, Rory O’Loughlin for Woodburn (all 52 mins), Jack Dunne for Tuima, Ross Vintcent for Vermeulen (both 56 mins), Ollie Devoto for Hawkins (61 mins).

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: Oli Jager for Archer, Conor Murray for Casey (both 58 mins), Josh Wycherley for Loughman (65 mins), Brian Gleeson for O’Donoghue (69 mins), Alex Kendellen for Hodnett (72 mins), Ben O’Connor for O’Brien (78 mins).

Not used: Eoghan Clarke, Rory Scannell.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times