Exeter Chiefs 7
Sean McMahon reporting from Thomond Park.
A Jean Kleyn turnover, a Joey Carbery penalty into the Ballynanty end and a thumping Chris Farrell tackle. Three moments that proved crucial as Munster were staring into the face of defeat at Thomond Park tonight.
Munster have been in this position so many times before – entering the final round of European action knowing a win will take them to the knockout stages. On most occasions, they find a way to navigate the pressure which comes with the knowledge that a loss could see them staring into the abyss.
It takes a strong, collective effort to channel that pressure into something positive and it took Munster some time of this 80-minute encounter at Thomond Park to do just that as their opening 40-minute performance and much of the second-half was littered with bad judgement, poor decision-making and difficulty in executing the basics.
Two penalties from the boot of Joey Carbery was all Munster could produce in the first half while Don Armand’s converted try after a powerful rolling maul after 12 minutes gave the Devon-based club a one-point advantage at the interval.
Munster continued the second half very much in the same fashion; full of intent and passion but lacking in clinical play and the correct decision making.
It wasn’t until a Carbery penalty less than eight minutes from full-time which saw Munster edge back in front and a heroic defensive shift in the last few minutes saw them maintain their winning record at Thomond Park and of course, a place in the last eight of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Both sides began the opening three minutes with periods of possession and some thundering defensive hits but the advantage eventually fell to Munster when the Exeter Chiefs were penalised for obstruction after a Conor Murray box kick.
Captain Peter O’Mahony pointed to the corner and Joey Carbery duly obliged much to the delight of the home crowd.
From the lineout, Niall Scannell sent the ball to CJ Stander at the tail. As Munster’s maul gained momentum, Jonny Hill was penalised for disrupting the ruck at the side and Stander let his grievances known by ripping the shirt off the towering lock much to the amusement of the home crowd.
Carbery sent the ball between the posts to give the home side a 3-0 advantage after seven minutes on the clock.
It didn’t take long for the Exeter Chiefs to hit back and Munster will only have themselves to blame from a period of sloppy play and indiscipline.
Peter O’Mahony knocked on from an inside pass from Carbery and from the resulting possession, the Chiefs won a penalty when Niall Scannell failed to roll away from a ruck.
The penalty, like Munster’s one minutes earlier, was sent to the corner but this time the Chiefs got the full complement of points as Don Armand crashed over from close range when their powerful maul was brought down just short of the line.
Joe Simmonds made no mistake with the touchline conversion and suddenly Munster found themselves 7-3 down with a quarter of the game gone.
Munster looked to hit back after a break from Keith Earls up the near touchline but they were thwarted when O’Mahony knocked on for the second time in the opening 20 minutes.
Munster conceded the free kick and the Chiefs opted to scrum again, clearly thinking they were in the ascendancy. However, a huge shove from the home side resulted in Stander picking the ball from the base for a carry.
A few phases later, Munster won a penalty and Carbery kicked another three points to make it a one-point game.
The out-half looked to be in trouble when he had the thankless task of tackling a rampaging Dave Dennis. The Auckland born 23-year-old held his wrist in some discomfort but continued on. From the ensuing ruck, Scannell thought the ball was out and went to steal only for referee Jerome Garces to award a penalty against the home side.
The Chiefs opted to go to the corner again but their throw wasn’t straight, much to the relief of the majority in attendance.
However, the southern province put themselves in trouble again from not rolling away at a ruck which gave the Chiefs another opportunity for a lineout drive deep in the Munster 22. To give credit to Johann van Graan’s charges, they stopped the maul dead and a few phases later, Tadhg Beirne stepped up to relieve the pressure with one of his trademark poaches.
As the first-half drew to a close, the southern province’s grasp of game-management looked to have completely gone out the window as they consistently handed the initiative to the Chiefs with poor passing and bad decision making.
Rob Baxter’s men had another opportunity for a try only for some excellent defensive work led to a turnover and Tommy O’Donnell quickly ran over the touchline as Munster greeted the halftime whistle with open arms.
There was little to write home about for the opening 15 minutes of the second half as both sides traded punches with little success.
Worryingly for Munster, they were beginning to fall foul of Garces’ whistle and their inaccurate play which hampered their performance, especially towards the end of the first half, continued.
At the midway point of the second half, a flowing backline move saw Conway stab the ball towards the corner flag. Exeter retained possession but it gave Munster some prime territory after a hasty clearing kick from the visitors.
The tactic, which was so often used to great success last week against Gloucester was finally being utilised by the southern province who were guilty of over-playing in their attack for most of this game.
Despite this miniature salvo, it was the Chiefs who turned over the ball and dominated territory. It looked ominous when the Chiefs had a lineout just metres from the Munster line only for Billy Holland to steal possession to allow his side to kick clear – his first involvement after coming on for Beirne.
With the Chiefs still in possession, it was Jean Kleyn’s turn for a big moment as he locked onto the ball at the breakdown and won his side a crucial penalty.
That was kicked into the Exeter half as Munster were soon awarded another penalty which Carbery kicked over the posts to give the southern province the lead for the first time since the 13th minute of the game.
With a two-point lead and less than eight minutes remaining, Exeter did what they do best and held onto the ball.
Their suffocating possession was interrupted by a rib-tickling Chris Farrell tackle but Baxter’s side weren’t done there.
They went through 20+ phases at the death until Munster dragged them into touch as this famous Limerick venue witnessed another memorable but nerve-wracking night.
They wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.
Munster: Mike Haley, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell (Goggin 58′), Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray (Mathewson 65′), Dave Kilcoyne (Loughman 67′), Niall Scannell (Marshall 74′), John Ryan (Archer 56′), Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne (Holland 67′), Peter O’Mahony (c), Tommy O’Donnell (Botha 40′), CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Arno Botha, Alby Mathewson, Tyler Bleyendaal, Dan Goggin.
Exeter Chiefs: Jack Nowell, Santiago Cordero, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto (Whitten 57′), Tom O’Flaherty, Joe Simmonds, Nic White, Alex Hepburn (Moon54′), Jack Yeandle (c), Harry Williams (Holmes 67′), Dave Dennis (Lees 51′), Jonny Hill, Sam Skinner, Don Armand, Matt Kvesic.
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ben Moon, Greg Holmes, Mitch Lees, Sean Lonsdale, Jack Maunder, Gareth Steenson, Ian Whitten.