Munster 9 Exeter 7
It wasn’t pretty, rather it was a little ugly. It wasn’t anything like some of the roller-coaster rides Thomond Park has witnessed at this time of the year, more unremittingly tense, but Munster, as they do, got there in the end.
As this will be a record 18th quarter-final, it shows that no-one knows how to find a way, any way, to navigate their way out of treacherous pool waters better than the men in red.
As things stand overnight, Munster are ranked fourth of the pool winners. But in all probability, unless Leinster return with nothing from their trek to Coventry against Wasps on Sunday, and Toulouse also fail to beat Bath at home, Munster will have to travel to Edinburgh for an away quarter-final.
If Leinster and Toulouse both win, and the latter with a bonus point, the quarter-finals will read: Saracens v Glasgow, Racing v Ulster, Leinster v Toulouse and Edinburgh v Munster.
If Toulouse won, but without a bonus point, they would face Racing and Leinster would host Ulster.
That Munster won here was largely down to their unquenchable desire, spirit, work-rate and tackling, as well as the unerring kicking of Joey Carbery, who since his radar was a little awry in Castres has now nailed his last 20 kicks.
For in truth, Exeter looked the more composed side and played with more accuracy than an edgy, nervous, error-prone Munster.
The first half was especially taut, tight and tense, and such was the frequency with which each team, and especially their scrumhalves, put boot on ball, it seemed more of it was played in the air than the ground.
Of the two, Munster were the more tense. Peter O'Mahony, twice, and Conor Murray knocked on untypically, while Keith Earls (twice) and Mike Haley, lost the ball in contact. Hence, the home side struggled to build any continuity or pressure save for isolated moments through their scrum or Murray's box kicking.
Though they had more pressure and entry points in Exeter territory, errors continued to undermine them in the second half and they finished the game as they had done for much of the night; defending as if for their lives.
CJ Stander led the way with 21 tackles, followed by Jean Kleyn on 18, David Kilcoyne on 17 and O'Mahony on 15, but it was the collective will as much as anything. The game featured one line break apiece
Limerick had been buzzing all day. As ever on these epic occasions, it seemed everyone in the 26,267 crowd were seated well before the warm-up. Stand Up and Fight was sung with gusto. The chants of 'Mun-ster, Mun-ster' drowned out attempted Indian chants from the thousands of Chiefs in Thomond Park. The decibel levels were up tenfold. And this was all before kick-off.
Each team had two possessions apiece in the opening two minutes 40 seconds without the game stopping, before Andrew Conway was blocked by Nic White when chasing the third of three early bombs from Exeter, none of which were dealt with comfortably.
Niall Scannell hit CJ Stander at the tail, and when Exeter lock Jonny Hill came in from the side he was both penalised and, to the merriment of the crowd, had his jersey removed and thrown away by Stander.
Carbery opened the scoring with the penalty.
There was a minor scare when Murray briefly stayed on one knee and had his neck checked. But after a third Exeter fumble of a Murray box-kick in a row, this time by Joe Simmonds, it was already time for the day's first version of The Fields.
Whereupon, the whole tenor of the match changed.
O’Mahony didn’t seem to expect Carbery’s inside pass, which he spilled, and when Niall Scannell was rightly penalised for not releasing in the tackle, Simmonds found a brilliant touch five metres out. Johann van Graan had pinpointed the need for extreme discipline to prevent Exeter of access points to the Munster 22.
Jack Yeandle hit Sam Skinner, and although a very compact maul was held up, two phases later Don Armand drive over the line with Alec Hepburn latching on. Simmonds landed a good conversion. The Chiefs fans chanted.
A second knock-on by O’Mahony ultimately turned out to Munster’s benefit. When Exeter opted for a second put-in off an indirect penalty, they were steamrollered off their own ball. The three points from Carbery’s sweet 40-plus metres strike was fair reward for the pack.
Munster were conceding penalties, although Earls was rightly aggrieved after seeming to have the ball knocked illegally from his hands by a prostrate Henry Slade.
While each pack had made a statement, neither backline had; the only other factor or trend being Exeter early wobbles under the high ball. Now it was the Exeter backs' chance as they took Munster through the phases before Tadhg Beirne couldn't be shifted off the ball in winning a relieving penalty, and his 12th turnover of the tournament.
Munster needed that.
They should have another attacking penalty when Harry Williams clearly scrummed at an angle underneath the nose of touchjudge Ludovic Kayre. The game's first scrap, involving 25 players, raised the temperature, as did another big Munster scrum.
But then Murray and Earls knocked on in turn, and when the latter was penalised for not releasing. This gave Exeter a fourth lineout in the Munster 22, but Munster’s defence held out, Conway reclaiming loose ball before Stander gratefully brought the half to an end by running over the touchline.
It wasn’t the most dignified of endings to the half, but it was sort of apt. Munster had hardly fired a shot. What continuity there was came from Exeter, who looked altogether more composed.
The main positive was the scoreline of 7-6 to the visitors after a half in which Munster had 36 per cent possession and 32 per cent territory, and the expectation that Munster could hardly play as badly in the second half. Having had to make twice as many tackles, at least their defence had held firm, with the props David Kilcoyne and John Ryan augmenting their work in the tight. Indeed all the pack, and Chris Farrell put in huge shifts, with Tommy O'Donnell making some big tackles.
Nor had Exeter felt Munster’s full fury yet. So it was a big interval for the Munster Brains’ Trust.
But still the crowd were waiting for Munster’s best, as twice they coughed up possession after lineouts 40 metres out, the second when Conway fumbled at an attempted pick-up.
The home support vented its frustration on the officials, notably when Jerome Garces wrongly deemed Beirne offside after blocking down a Nic White box kick. It was a rare mistake. Garces wasn't the problem.
Despite Conway reclaiming two Murray box-kicks, their running game could make no headway, and after Carbery and Haley almost ran into each other, the latter’s carry led to another turnover from Slade’s counter.
So Beirne won another turnover penalty in the jackal.
Finally the backs combined to find Conway in some kind of space when Earls looked around Carbery and then ripped the ball back, but Murray went blind and was held up for another turnover.
From an attacking maul, Murray again went blind to Conway, and he chipped into touch. Given their first chance to vent their fury, they were pushing it a little. Even Murray. Then Arno Botha spilled a pass infield from Murray.
The crowd groaned, and again when Beirne stayed down, and yet again when White’s long punt rolled into touch five metres from the Munster line, as Munster replaced Murray with Alby Mathewson; a big call.
Beirne soon departed too, but after O'Mahony was pinged and Exeter went to the corner, with his first touch Billy Holland picked off the throw at full stretch to a roar of pure relief.
Exeter came again; O'Mahony and Niall Scannell hauling down Ian Whitten and Jean Kleyn took over Beirne's role in the jackal to win the penalty. Another followed, harshly it seemed, when Mitch Lees was seemingly adjudged to have played O'Mahony in the air.
Eight minutes from time, Carbery took on the kick from fully 45 metres. The crowd held its breath, and roared as he unerringly nailed his 20th kick in a row to inch Munster in front for the first time in 50 minutes.
Cue only the second rendition of The Fields.
Botha's big hit on Luke Cowan-Dickie forced a spillage, Carbery grubbered into the corner, Earls's tackle stopped Santiago Cordero breaking out.
One final defensive set through 16 phases was required, O'Mahony completing his unlikely 80-minute plus effort when, along with Mathewson he dragged Ben Moon over the touchline.
Having willed them home, Thomond Park heaved one last collective roar of relief.
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), Alby Mathewson for Murray (65), Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne, Billy Holland for Beirne (both 67), Rhys Marshall for N Scannell (72). Not used: Tyler Bleyendaal.
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), Luke Cowan-Dickie for Yeandle, Ian Whitten for Devoto (both 57), Greg Holmes for Williams (67). Not used: Sean Lonsdale, Jack Maunder, Gareth Steenson.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)
1 Saracens (Q) P6 - 28pts
2 Racing 92 (Q) P6 - 26pts
3 Edinburgh (Q) P6 - 23pts
4 Munster (q) P6 - 21pts
5 Leinster (q) P5 20pts
6 Ulster (q) P6 22pts
7 Glasgow (q) P6 19pts
8 Toulouse (q) P5 17pts
Remaining games: Wasps v Leinster, Ricoh Arena, Sunday, 3.15pm; Toulouse v Bath, Stade Ernest Wallon, 3.15pm