Munster booked their place in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals for an 18th time as they ground out a dogged victory over English league leaders Exeter at a sold-out Thomond Park on Saturday night.
Three Joey Carbery penalties were enough to deny the Chiefs, who had scored the only try of the game in 18th minute when Don Armand went over from close range. The win means Munster finish top of Pool 2 on 21 points but will have to make do with an away quarter-final at the end of March as fifth seeds, the lowest points total of the five pool winners.
A week on from a barnstorming display at Gloucester that earned Munster a bonus-point win and control of Pool 2, Exeter proved more stubborn opposition. The Premiership leaders had kept their hopes of qualification alive with back-to-back bonus-point victories and came to Thomond Park looking to score a famous win but it would need a third European win in succession for the first time in this competition.
With so much at stake, a tightly-contested game was to be expected and so it proved in front of a sold-out crowd in excess of 26,000, There were early signs that this was to be a tough afternoon as Munster launched a driving maul and No.8 CJ Stander ripped the jersey off the back of defending lock Jonny Hill, throwing it away in disgust to the delight of the Munster faithful. There was something more substantial to cheer when that maul produced a home penalty in the sixth minute with Joey Carbery settling nerves top open the scoring off the tee.
The lead was short-lived, though, as Carbery turned over in contact and Munster went off their feet trying to retrieve the ball.
From the penalty, Exeter got the field position they sought and from the resulting five-metre lineout, their renowned pack did what it does best and ground down Munster’s defence, flanker Don Armand launching himself with the ball over the line for the first try of the game on 13 minutes, Joe Simmonds converting to create a 7-3 away lead.
Carbery closed the gap with a kick nine minutes later after his forwards had turned over an Exeter scrum against the head and then earned a penalty when the Chiefs went offside and that was the way it stayed until the interval, Munster trailing by a point at 7-6 down but looking far from their fluent best, Rob Baxter’s side doubtless going into the break in better fettle after the home side continued to kick the ball to them throughout the first 40 minutes,
Johann van Graan had made great play of Exeter’s ability to keep possession better than any other team in the competition yet Munster had insisted on handing it to them, even though the Chiefs’ back three occasionally looked uncertain under the high ball.
Yet Munster persisted into the second half and it made the game a tough watch for an angsty Thomond Park crowd, particularly with referee Jérome Garces frustrating the home side with a string of 50-50 decisions that went Exeter’s way.
It was the archetypal arm-wrestle until those decisions started to go Munster’s way as the game headed towards the final 10 minutes. A couple of penalties later and Munster were in reach of the posts, Carbery stepping up confidently in the 72nd minute from just inside the 10-metre line to nudge his side in front at 9-7 with the first points since half-time.
All of a sudden it was Exeter feeling the heat, chasing the game to earn they eight-point cushion on the scoreboard that would see them progress and with the clock ticking agonisingly towards 80 minutes,
Tadhg Beirne had been lost to a knee injury in the 66th minute and captain Peter O’Mahony looked to have been struggling throughout yet played on as Munster staged a last-ditch rearguard into the final minute, Exeter’s powers of possession now futile as they were pinned on halfway, their hopes finally extinguished as Keith Earls bundled his man into touch as the clock turned to 80 minutes. Victory, and qualification was Munster’s.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin, 58), K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray (A Mathewson, 67); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 66) , N Scannell (R Marshall, 72), J Ryan (S Archer, 55); J Kleyn, T Beirne (B Holland, 66); P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell (A Botha, h-t), CJ Stander.
Replacement not used: T Bleyendaal.
EXETER CHIEFS: J Nowell; S Cordero, H Slade, O Devoto (I Whitten, 58), T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn (B Moon, 53), J Yeandle - captain (L Cowan-Dickie, 58), H Williams (G Holmes, 67); D Dennis (M Lees, 50), J Hill; S Skinner, D Armand, M Kvesic.
Replacements not used: S Lonsdale, J Maunder, G Steenson.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)