Heroic goal-line stand gives Munster fighting chance at Thomond Park

Munster should have been dead and buried at half-time against Exeter but weren’t

Exeter 13 Munster 8

It’s another remarkable chapter in Munster’s storied European history and whets the appetite for a titanic tussle at Thomond Park in the second leg next Saturday afternoon.

It was a game in which Munster should have been dead and buried at half-time but weren’t. It was a match they should have won had they been a little more clear-eyed and precise when facing just 13 Exeter players for a period in the second half. And then in a fraught end game the Irish province looked certain to concede a third try but didn’t.

As a contest it was never less than enthralling. Exeter will wonder how they contrived to have just a five-point advantage to take to Limerick. The simple answer is that they didn’t take their chances; four times they didn’t ground the ball over the line and turned down a hatful of kickable points.

They dominated the scrum, looked far more threatening in attack, but couldn’t translate that into points on the scoreboard.

Munster too will have a regret or two but a lot less than their hosts. The visitors demonstrated tremendous spirit and character, led by the outstanding Jack O’Donoghue, John Hodnett and Mike Haley in particular, while Shane Daly, a late call-up, had a superb game that extended beyond a superbly taken try.

Chris Farrell, Conor Murray, Damian de Allende and Fineen Wycherley individually produced some telling contributions, particularly in defence. Munster's injury issues were exacerbated by two late defections as Simon Zebo and Diarmuid Barron were forced to withdraw having come down with gastroenteritis, joining an absentee list that included Dave Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O'Mahony, Gavin Coombes, Joey Carbery and Andrew Conway.

Training drill

Daly came in on the left wing to replace Zebo while 21-year-old Scott Buckley was promoted to the bench for Barron. Buckley was a try scorer on his European debut against Wasps at the Ricoh arena in December and is a member of the Munster academy.

The opening 40-minutes resembled a training drill, Exeter Chiefs given the ball to attack, and Munster obliged to defend. It took the visitors 30-minutes to make it as far as the Exeter 22 and when they did they were undone in giving away a penalty.

It was a recurring theme in the first half, Munster’s indiscipline, 10 penalties conceded, meant that they were unable to enjoy sustained respite from Exeter’s dominance. The fact that they trailed by just 10-0 at the interval was a minor miracle; they rode their luck at times but also showed resilience and defiance.

Conor Murray and Chris Farrell made huge defensive plays that denied Exeter tries while the home side will also have to do a little soul searching to figure out how they let Munster off the hook on two or three other occasions.

The opening minutes of the contest belonged to Munster flanker John Hodnett as he made a try saving tackle, won a couple of turnovers, including a penalty at the breakdown to thwart the home side. It looked ominous for Johann van Graan’s side when Exeter took the lead with a smartly taken try from Stuart Hogg following a quickly taken freekick.

Tom O’Flaherty came off his wing into midfield, got outside Chris Farrell, raced through a gap and then timed his pass perfectly to the Scotland fullback who raced over in the corner. Joe Simmonds missed the conversion.

Daly, twice and Mike Haley provided glimmers of attacking promise, but those moments invariably petered through indiscipline or handling errors.

Second try

Exeter’s scrum dominance produced a few penalties, their counter-rucking at the breakdown was a lucrative source of possession but for all that ball it wasn’t until the 38th minute that they managed a second try.

Niall Scannell was harshly penalised for going off his feet when he didn’t materially obstruct anyone but the 10th infringement soon after would cost the visitors a player, replacement Jack O’Sullivan paying the price for cumulative team transgression.

Exeter once again kicked to the corner, but this time came away with a try. The lineout maul made the initial headway but after several close-range sallies, Jacques Vermeulen forced his way over. Simmonds again missed the conversion. Exeter’s Rob Baxter must have cut a frustrated figure at halftime, trying to figure out how his team weren’t 20 points plus ahead.

His mood won’t have improved watching the first six minutes after the re-start, Exeter forcing a freekick and then a penalty, which they kicked to the corner but again came away with no points. O’Donoghue and Murray again with vital inventions to deny Exeter as they rumbled towards the Munster line.

The visitors’ penalty count continued to climb further north on the re-start, and they were fortunate that referee Pierre Brousset was tolerant in not reaching for his pocket. O’Donoghue remained a superbly defiant marauding presence, O’Sullivan won a penalty turnover on his return and suddenly it was the home side that started to transgress.

Ben Healy kicked a penalty and then Exeter lost two players in two minutes to yellow cards, wing Olly Woodburn for use of the forearm in an attempted clear-out on Niall Scannell at a ruck, the second when replacement prop Patrick Schickerling played the ball on the ground metres from his own line.

Munster kicked that penalty to the corner but conceded a penalty for illegal blocking. Exeter stormed down the other end of the pitch, but they had a lineout maul held up over the line. Hogg dropped a goal from long range to make it 13-3.

The 13 men of Exeter were undone though on 67 minutes when Henry Slade gambled on an intercept. He got fingertips to it but Earls re-gathered the loose ball, he fed Farrell who in turn put Daly clear; the try still required some finishing but the wing was up to the task.

Healy missed the conversion but at 13-8 Munster were now within touching distance of a remarkable turnaround and then should have had a second try. After turning down a kickable penalty in front of the posts Niall Scannell tapped and took contact a couple of metres short of the Exeter line.

Munster hammered away around the fringes but at least on two occasions they could have run in a try had they looked further towards the touchline where they had a numerical advantage.

Exeter looked like they would make Munster pay twice in the last 90 seconds, but Earls denied Woodburn with a brilliant last-ditch tackle and then the visitors produced one last heroic goal-line stand. Considering everything, it was a remarkable performance and one from which Munster will reap the true benefit at Thomond Park next Saturday afternoon.

Scoring sequence - 5 mins: Hogg try, 5-0; 38 mins: Vermeulen try, 10-0. Half-time: 10-0. 56: 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