Munster and Chiefs do old school in tense and taut face-off
Exeter prove tough nut to crack as Munster grind out a win through sheer will and work
Munster’s Tadhg Beirne blocks a kick from Nic White of Exeter Chiefs during the Heineken Champions Cup Round 6 match at Thomond Park, Limerick on Saturday. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Munster 9 Exeter Chiefs 7
Even since its redevelopment, few grounds do old school quite like Thomond Park. This was an old-school scoreline at the end of an old-school game, a taut, tense and true Cup tie.
Allowing for the fact that Exeter had to win by more than seven points, this was effectively a play-off to reach the play-offs. And for 50 minutes Exeter led by a point and so were one converted try away from eliminating Munster. The unthinkable was made all the more plausible simply because Munster weren’t playing especially well.
Exeter were maintaining more continuity. An edgy Munster were coughing up possession cheaply. When they finally began to make some territorial inroads, they forced it, with even Conor Murray culpable and, just as remarkably, he was replaced by Alby Mathewson fully 15 minutes from time.
Joey Carbery’s 73rd-minute penalty eventually afforded the home side some breathing space, but you’d never have noticed it in the endgame as the vast majority exhorted Munster over the line to a 12th successive Euro home win here and then exhaled in a roar of relief.
Every single one of the 26,267 capacity crowd had been in situ to generate a feverish atmosphere from before the warm-ups, never mind the kick-off, and had remained until the last whistle and beyond.
Of 60 pool matches this season, this was the lowest-scoring game, and followed the 10-all draw in Sandy Park in round one, which was the third-lowest. This is what Exeter can do to teams. They commit heavily to the ruck, often as many as four when other teams would risk two or three.
So opposing teams have to be prepared to defend, and defend. Hence that defensive work-out and trial of temperament against Leinster over Christmas looked particularly valuable.
It was a bit like two bulls banging away at each other out there, wasn’t it? Nobody really got any momentum
For Tadhg Beirne to win two turnover penalties at the breakdown against Exeter is equivalent to about half a dozen against anyone else.
In the 80 minutes, Munster had been kept tryless and restricted to one line break. That they won was due to their sheer will, desire, hunger for work and defensive execution. CJ Stander led the way with 21 tackles, followed by Jean Kleyn on 18, David Kilcoyne on 17 and Peter O’Mahony on 15, and they also restricted Exeter to one line break, which was an even bigger effort. Both teams employed unrelentingly quick line speed and excellent tackle execution.
“We got off the line really well today,” said the Exeter head coach Rob Baxter. “We had good line speed, decent tackle completion. We competed well around the rucks and made the ball quite slow at times. To be fair, Munster did that to us very well also. It was a bit like two bulls banging away at each other out there, wasn’t it? Nobody really got any momentum.”
Which about summed it up.
Even so, the spate of knock-ons and handling errors, which even affected O’Mahony, Murray and Keith Earls, betrayed clear signs of anxiousness.
“I thought we weren’t clinical enough in the first half,” conceded Johann van Graan. “They brought tremendous line speed and chop tackles to the breakdown, and they slowed down our ball. We were prepared to play but we faced a top-class defence today and we weren’t clinical enough, especially in that first half, and I thought we adapted well in the second half and got some momentum.
“This was a test match in the true sense of the word. I thought we just had to grind out a win and I thought that’s what we did.”
That seven-point buffer which Munster brought into the game was significant for, as Baxter also pointed out, Exeter felt compelled to go up the line from around or outside the opposition 10-metre line, whereas Munster took on and nailed three kicks from that kind of range.
Obviously what Munster have done is they have been more consistent through the pool than we have
True, Exeter having scored off their first line-out maul, those line-outs, drives and ensuing phases of attacks all had to be held out by Munster, and they duly were.
In 10 Anglo-Irish games over the last two seasons, the Irish sides have won nine, with the only exception being that Sandy Park draw between these two. Of 18 Anglo-Irish encounters over the last two seasons, there have been 17 Irish wins, one draw and one English win.
Yet that looked more like a statistical curio on this evidence. Certainly the gap has been minuscule between these two.
“What has been the difference between us and Munster?” asked Baxter rhetorically. “Two points on a scoreboard. That is pretty competitive to me. That argument looks after itself in a way. Obviously what Munster have done is they have been more consistent through the pool than we have, and that has ultimately seen them through the top. But if you compare us with Munster over the course of two games there was two points difference on the scoreboard, you are not going to get it more competitive than that.”
Baxter also saw a bigger picture than five Pro14 teams to one from the Premiership.
“I’m getting to the stage now where I am thinking, in England, we make too big of a deal of it. For me, the Heineken Cup is a great competition, because of days like today. We are top of the league in the Premiership at the moment and we get to come here on a day like this, and you are sitting there listening to over 20,000 singing The Fields of Athenry and Stand Up and Fight before you go out, and it is amazing. That is what it should be about.”
They’ll be back, and they’ll crack it one year.
Scoring sequence: 7 mins Carbery pen 3-0; 13 mins Armand try, Simmonds con 3-7; 23 mins Carbery pen 6-7; (half-time 6-7); 73 mins Carbery pen 9-7.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: Arno Botha for O’Donnell (half-time), Stephen Archer for Ryan (56 mins), Dan Goggin for R Scannell (58 mins), Alby Mathewson for Murray (65 mins), Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne, Billy Holland for Beirne (both 67 mins), Rhys Marshall for N Scannell (72 mins).
EXETER CHIEFS: Jack Nowell, Santiago Cordero, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Tom O’Flaherty; Joe Simmonds, Nic White; Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle (capt), Harry Williams, Dave Dennis, Jonny Hill, Sam Skinner, Don Armand, Matt Kvesic. Replacements: Mitch Lees for Dennis (50 mins), Ben Moon for Hepburn (53 mins), Luke Cowan-Dickie for Yeandle, Ian Whitten for Devoto (both 57 mins), Greg Holmes for Williams (67 mins).
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France).