‘This is a club that will always stand up and fight’ - Johann van Graan

If Munster are to prevail at Thomond Park they’ll need to be more ruthless and creative

Exeter Chiefs 13 Munster 8

“This is a club that will always stand up and fight.” Munster head coach Johann van Graan’s post-match words summed up the essence of his team’s performance, one that keeps them very much alive and kicking for their Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 second leg at Thomond Park next Saturday.

How they managed it in a madcap, topsy turvy tussle made for quite a colourful tale. Munster should have been dead and buried at half-time but weren’t. The narrative was flipped on its head in the second half when facing 13 Exeter players, they scored one try and should have had a second, if they had been more clear-eyed and precise.

The inability to see the space and numbers out wide was subsumed in a desire to batter their way over the line refusing to stray from the narrow confines of the fringes of a series of rucks within touching distance of the Exeter line. And then, in a fraught end game, the Irish province looked certain to concede a third try but didn’t.

That’s the shorthand version of a contest that was never less than enthralling and one to which both teams could lay claim to victory. The honour belongs to Exeter because they took one more opportunity from a bagful on offer.

On four occasions they manoeuvred the ball over the line but couldn't ground it successfully. Part of that is attributable to some valiant goal-line resistance as illustrated by Conor Murray, twice, Chris Farrell and Keith Earls, all of whom made try saving interventions.

Exeter must bear some culpability though in not fully exploiting the chances they created. The home side played some cracking rugby at times but without the end product of points it should have left them feeling a little underwhelmed or at least frustrated that they won’t take a meatier points’ difference to Thomond Park

Processes

The home side’s director of rugby Rob Baxter was upbeat in the aftermath. “That was a very good performance. All the hard work and the processes were there. If you perform like that, nine times out of 10, you win the game, and we’ve won the game. I am pretty comfortable with where we are.

“We created a lot of opportunities that we didn’t take, but at the same time we probably put together some fantastic plays. That 10 minutes when we were down to 13 men was probably one of our best 10 minutes of the season.”

Baxter was critical of the referee Pierre Brousset’s decision to sin bin first Olly Woodburn and replacement prop Patrick Schickerling in a two-minute spell between the 59th and 61st minutes that saw the tone of the contest swing wildly in Munster’s favour, despite Stuart Hogg’s long range drop goal.

The visitors scored a try through Shane Daly, who had an excellent game, but should have tagged on another. The decision not to kick a penalty under the posts and instead chase a try should have borne fruit but didn’t because the Munster forwards succumbed to tunnel vision.

Still at 13-8, it still amounted to a remarkable turnaround for a visiting side that were dominated in the scrum and at the breakdown in the first half and who conceded a whopping 16 penalties in total. A saving grace was their ability to disrupt the Exeter lineout, which at least destabilised one platform.

First foray

Munster conceded a first try on five minutes from a quickly taken freekick. Exeter’s Tom O’Flaherty came off his wing into midfield, accelerated outside Chris Farrell, raced through a gap and then timed his pass perfectly to the Hogg fullback who raced over in the corner. Joe Simmonds missed the conversion.

The visitor’s first foray into the Exeter 22 came on the half hour which underlined the relentless pressure they faced. John Hodnett excelled at the breakdown, forcing turnovers and penalties while carrying powerfully.

Jack O’Donoghue was outstanding in every facet of the game, an inspirational figure. Fineen Wycherley, Murray and the two centres Damian de Allende and Chris Farrell enjoyed some high profile moments in defence. Only Daly and fullback Mike Haley threatened with the ball in hand, and this was reduced to fleeting moments.

Jack O’Sullivan - he was the unfortunate recipient of a yellow card for what constituted cumulative team offences - also made a decent impact when coming on for Alex Kendellen, forced from the contest after failing a head injury assessment. In O’Sullivan’s absence, Exeter scored a second try through flanker Jacques Vermeulen; again unconverted.

Munster’s response, a penalty from Ben Healy kept the visitors in touch, 10-3 at the interval. Few anticipated that the second half would yield just eight points, Hogg’s drop goal and Daly’s try.

The true value of Earl’s brilliant scrambling tackle on Woodburn, which Farrell completed by knocking the ball out of the Exeter player’s hands, will become apparent next Saturday in Limerick. If Munster are to prevail then they will need to be more ruthless and creative while retaining the fiery defiance of Sandy Park.

Scoring sequence - 5 mins: Hogg try, 5-0; 38 mins: Vermeulen try, 10-0. Half-time: 10-0. 56 mins: Healy penalty, 10-3; 65 mins: Hogg drop goal, 13-3; 67 mins: Daly try, 13-8.

Exeter Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn, H Slade, I Whitten, T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds, S Maunder; A Hepburn, J Yeandle (capt), H Williams; J Gray, S Skinner; D Ewers, J Vermeulen, S Simmonds.

Replacements: P Schickerling for Williams 51 mins; B Moon for Hepburn 55 mins; J Kirsten for Ewers 57 mins; R Capstick for Vermeulen 57 mins; J Maunder for S Maunder 59 mins; J Innard for Yeandle 65 mins; H Skinner for Whitten 68 mins; , J Hodge.

Yellow card: Olly Woodburn on 59 mins; P Schickerling on 61 mins.

Munster: M Haley; K Earls, C Farrell, D de Allende, S Daly; B Healy, C Murray; J Loughman, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, F Wycherley; J O'Donoghue, J Hodnett, A Kendellen.

Replacements: J O’Sullivan for Kendellen (HIA) 28 mins; J Ryan for Archer 48 mins; J Wycherley for Loughman 62 mins; C Casey for Murray 62 mins; T Ahern for Kleyn 64 mins; J Jenkins for Hodnett 73 mins.

Yellow card: Jack O’Sullivan on 36 mins.

Referee: Pierre Brousset (France).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer

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