Munster 26 Exeter Chiefs 10 (Munster win 34-23 on agg)
Rumours of Munster’s demise, and indeed that of their 16th man at Thomond Park, may indeed have been premature. A clearly thought out game plan, superbly executed and thunderously supported, saw them repel everything the champions of two years ago could throw at them and secure their customary place in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup.
They earned it too, for there was never an inch conceded without a fight in this absorbing contest as Munster augmented a huge defensive effort featuring seven vital turnovers with some well-shaped attacking and variety to pull through by 26-10 on the day and 34-23 on aggregate, so earning a quarter-final at home to Toulouse after he defending champions broke Ulster's hearts at the death in Belfast.
The return of Peter O'Mahony and Joey Carbery was always likely to provide more leadership and game management, and they did that and so much more. Alongside the consistently effective Jack O'Donoghue as he seamlessly switched to number eight, O'Mahony was simply immense, making seven carries and 14 tackles, and winning three turnovers, but his performance went beyond the numbers.
So too Carbery, whose well-taken try and six kicks from six in a 21-point haul was the end product of a masterful display. It also vindicated their approach to opt for shots at goal.
Thomond Park may have been far from full for this crunch knock-out European tie but there was a good buzz around the ground in the build-up and come kick-off, with home players and supporters alike feeding off each other’s energy, initially thanks to their defensive effort.
Setting the tone, O'Mahony won the first of their seven first-half turnovers to end Exeter's first foray and when John Hodnett did likewise in the opposite half, Carbery struck a fine 35-metre penalty into the breeze from the north terrace.
Still, Exeter were finding space on the edge, where Tom O'Flaherty fended Keith Earls, although Damian de Allende made a covering mark and Mike Haley did tackle Olly Woodburn into touch on the opposite flank.
But when Munster conceded a couple of penalties near their own line it resulted in Sam Maunder tapping and scoring, with the Munster defence caught off guard. What's more Conor Murray was yellow-carded for tackling Maunder prematurely, although this was partly the result of Mathieu Raynal's delayed signal and whistle.
Haley deputised effectively at scrumhalf and Munster went into overdrive when Jack O’Donoghue exploded off the base of a scrum, earning a penalty for Carbery to knock over. And helped by another turnover penalty by O’Donoghue won the 10 minutes without Murray by 3-0.
A brilliant pass by Carbery gave Earls a run up the right, which was backed up by O’Mahony winning a turnover penalty which Carbery tapped into the corner.
Munster carried hard and recycled through seven phases before Carbery took O'Mahony's dive pass off the base and eyed up a mis-match with tighthead Harry Williams to dummy and glide over, also adding the conversion.
When Stuart Hogg missed a long-range penalty with Exeter's last use of the wind it left Munster 13-5 ahead at the break and, more significantly, 21-18 ahead on aggregate.
They had to put together another strong defensive set of 13 phases in the middle third of the pitch on the resumption before Jannes Kirsten knocked on, following which Murray kicked out on the full.
This led to another attack of 16 phases, as Exeter went more direct and with close support to negate Munster's threat over the ball and a couple of close-range tap penalties before Jacques Vermeulen burrowed over, as he had done in the first leg.
For the fourth time in the tie Joe Simmonds missed a conversion, this one rebounding from the upright, and so Exeter led by two points on aggregate.
There was a good shape to Munster’s next couple of multiphase attacks, but also grit to Exeter’s defence, albeit Murray and crowd alike were incensed when the French officials somehow allowed Woodburn to clearly take out the Munster scrumhalf at the base of a ruck.
Whereupon O'Mahony drove Dave Ewers back off the base of a scrum, bounced to his feet and did the same to Vermeulen. When Ewers went off his feet, the skipper pointed to the posts and Carbery again bisected them.
Better still when Kirsten clearly came in from the side, Carbery again landed the kick from all of halfway to nudge Munster four ahead. The home crowd sought to lift their side again when Diarmuid Barron conceded a ruck penalty and Exeter again opted for the corner. O'Mahony again came up with a turnover and Earls another one when chasing the relieving kick, as the ground lifted.
Then, with the young tyros from the bench adding impact, from a fine lineout take by O’Mahony, Munster launched through Farrell’s hard outside-in carry and again probed at tempo and with variety.
Carbery switched wide and passed inside to Haley before Alex Kendellen charged and then worked the ball wide to the hitherto unused Simon Zebo and he opted for the outside he looked sure to be double-tackled into touch. But he slipped a stunning left to right offload inside for De Allende to blast through Henry Slade's tackle to score and punch the air.
Zebo’s sleight of hand needed second viewings, prompting both a gasp and a cheer from the crowd. Carbery even landed the touchline conversion.
Exeter weren’t done, so time for one final defensive set, one final turnover and one final rendition of The Fields.
Another of those special Munster European days at their citadel. Good stuff.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 6 mins: Carbery pen 3-0; 11: S Maunder try 3-5; 17: Carrbery pen 6-5; 26: Carbery try, con 13-5; (half-time 13-5); 49: Vermeulen try 13-10; 60: Carbery pen 16-10; 65: Carbery pen 19-10; 73: De Allende try, Carbery con 26-10.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Simon Zebo; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O'Mahony (capt), John Hodnett, Jack O'Donoghue.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron for N Scannell, Jeremy Loughman for Wycherley, Stephen Archer for Ryan (55 mins), Thomas Ahern for (61 mins),
Craig Casey for Murray, Alex Kendellen for Hodnett (both 69), Jason Jenkins for O'Mahony (75 mins). Unused: Ben Healy.
EXETER CHIEFS: Stuart Hogg; Olly Woodburn, Henry Slade, Ian Whitten, Tom O'Flaherty; Joe Simmonds, Sam Maunder; Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle (capt), Harry Williams; Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner; Dave Ewers, Jannes Kirsten, Jacques Vermeulen.
Replacements: Jack Maunder for S Maunder (58 mins), Jack Innard for Yeandle, Billy Keast for Hepburn, Patrick Schickerling for Williams (all 60), Richard Capstick for Vermeulen, Josh Hodge for Woodburn (both 72), Santiago Grondona for Whitten, Tom Gilbert-Hendrickson for Ewers (both 75).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).
Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals
La Rochelle v Montpellier
Leicester v Leinster
Munster v Toulouse
Racing 92/Stade Francais v Sale
Ties to be played May 6th-8th