Johann van Graan hailed another of the great days in Munster’s storied history in the Heineken Champions Cup, and the passionate backing of their 16th man, after their 26-10 win on the day and 34-23 aggregate win over Exeter earned them a place in the quarter-finals for the 19th time.
‘That was a performance of two very proud clubs going at each other, a very unique experience over two legs, but the 16th man pulled us through today,” said the Munster head coach.
“We as a group said that to claw back the five-point difference would be massive, and the fact that we were unbeaten in the pool stage meant we were always going to finish here at Thomond Park. We banked on the crowd and they were phenomenal today.”
His counterpart Rob Baxter admitted that he could feel the game's momentum was ebbing away from his side and toward Munster in the second half but Van Graan wasn't always so sure.
‘No, we were pretty focused in the coaching box, we knew that it was going to be a breakdown and set-piece battle, that’s why we went 6-2 again [on the bench].
"The starters did really well, and at half-time we emphasised the impacts, and the forwards who came on were massive; the frontrow, [Alex] Kendellen, [Thomas] Ahern and Jason Jenkins with one or two massive hits. Exeter keep the ball well, and I thought we were extremely disciplined in terms of when to go to the breakdown and applied a lot of pressure."
Munster problem-solved in the first leg a week previously after conceding seven first-half penalties at the breakdown, and here the shoe was on the other foot as Munster won five turnovers in the first period at the breakdown, and despite Exeter tightening up that area after the resumption, another two in the second period. Munster only conceded two themselves.
“We gave them soft entries last week, with maul and scrum penalties. That was an even battle today, the quality of our hitting was a lot better and our decision-making at the breakdown was excellent,” said Van Graan.
The return of Peter O'Mahony was critical in this and much else besides as the captain's bravura, all-round performance led to his former Lions backrow teammate Sam Warburton adjudging him man-of-the-match, although Jack O'Donoghue and Joey Carbery couldn't have been far from Warburton's thinking.
“Yeah, Pete’s a man for the big moments and that’s why you back your captain to come though in big European games, and we targeted this one,” said Van Graan. “We knew that we needed to stay in the fight last week, which we certainly did. Last week they were over the tryline four times and we scrambled, and that five-point deficit, we knew that we needed to claw that back.
“I thought that we started the game pretty well and then came back into it, but from Pete’s point of view, that’s what you want your captain to do on the big days, perform like that.”
O’Mahony was playing through the pain barrier as well, and was brought off five minutes from time and had an ice pack on his left shoulder/upper body.
“I haven’t spoken to him about his body, we just spoke about the performance of the whole group. We mentioned the week, we got the week really good, we enjoyed the week, enjoyed the build-up and we certainly enjoyed today.”
Carbery, at the top of his game, oozed through the outing in his inimitable style, scoring 21 points with a try and six kicks from six in a strong breeze.
“Joey is a special player, and I said to him early in the week, that when I met him a few years ago I had so much belief in him,” said Van Graan. “He’s such a special player, and I said to him ‘today is the day to lead us through’. He certainly responded, not only with his kicking, but the try he scored. He’s a phenomenal man, he’s been through a lot, but he’s led us to victory from a 10 perspective.
"On that note, all 23 players gave it their all, I know Ben Healy didn't get on the pitch, but in terms of being all-in, we were 23 guys."
The deal was ultimately sealed by Damian de Allende's 75th-minute try after another sustained attack finally broke Exeter's resistance thanks to such a wondrous pass in a double tackle from Simon Zebo that it had to be seen again in slow motion for the crowd to fully appreciate its skill.
“Yeah look, Zeebs is the man for a big moment,” said Van Graan. “That pass to Damian was pretty special, but you need your big players to perform on big days and as I said last week, you don’t win a game in the first leg, but you could lose it.
“We stayed in the fight and today the Munster team produced when it mattered, and we’re in a European quarter-final.”