Simon Lewis, Sandy Park
Munster’s last-ditch defensive rearguard earned the province an excellent draw at the home of the English league leaders as their Heineken Champions Cup campaign got up and running in dramatic style.
A second-half try by CJ Stander, converted by Joey Carbery had levelled proceedings with 15 minutes remaining to wipe out a 10-3 Exeter lead after hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie had scored the first try of the game before half-time, converted by Gareth Steenson.
But it still needed a nerveless defensive effort from the visitors with time up to withstand a late Chiefs rally. It denied the home side a seventh straight win after an unbeaten start to the English Premiership season and may well prove invaluable to Munster’s hopes of advancing out of Pool 2 next January.
Munster played the opening half into a stiff breeze which made territory kicking extremely difficult, Joey Carbery gaining little headway with the boot as the visitors controlled possession for lengthy periods.
It was the Chiefs who struck the first blow, though, captain Steenson opening the scoring in the 19th minute after Munster went off their feet at a ruck in front of the posts. It was a cruel blow to Peter O’Mahony’s side after an excellent opening quarter in which they enjoyed success at the set-piece, winning a penalty off Exeter’s first scrum and gaining ground through their lineout maul.
Their reward did not come until the 31st minute when, after 28 phases inside the Chiefs’ 22, referee Jerome Garces awarded Munster a scrum that had head coach Johann van Graan rising to his feet to applaud form the coaches box.
A penalty soon followed, though Munster might have had a try playing the advantage, Rory Scannell’s option to kick through the Exeter line when there were free men on his outside backfiring. Yet Carbery slotted his penalty into the wind from in front of the posts and Munster had every right to feel pleased with their efforts.
Until the last couple of minutes before the interval, that is. Exeter’s forwards gathered some momentum and ground their way upfield, hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie getting over the line for the first try of the game.
Steenson duly converted but there was controversy as Munster wing Andrew Conway flattened the Ulster-born fly-half after trying to charge down the kick.
The repeated replays of the incident on the stadium big screen made for uncomfortable viewing by were ignored by Garces as the half came to a close with Exeter 10-3 ahead but facing a second half playing into the gusting wind.
What a difference it made. While Exeter got a better foothold as they relied on their big ball-carriers rather than the boot, Munster were also able to use the wind at their backs to make vital territory gains.
In an attritional second half, Munster finally made their breakthrough in the 64th minute, successive lineouts down the right wing putting the visitors in sight of the tryline and No.8 CJ Stander closing out the deal with the five-pointer, the first score of the second period. Carbery converted to level the scores at 10-10.
It made for a cagey closing 12 minutes but Munster found themselves hanging on for dear life as the clock ticked past 80 and Exeter, gifted a scrum on the visitors’ 22 after an overcooked kick upfield by Carbery, hammered at the door, Jack Nowell, making a dart for glory only for Munster’s defence to save the day and earn an invaluable draw against the odds.
"You've no idea how unbelievably tough that was!" pic.twitter.com/9qGRXyXa2u— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) October 13, 2018
EXETER CHIEFS: P Dollman; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten, S Cordero; G Steenson - captain, S Townsend; B Moon (A Hepburn, 57), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle, 57), H Williams (T Francis, 57); D Dennis (O Atkins, 42), S Skinner (T Lawday, 64); D Ewers (L Cowan-Dickie, 64-74 HIA), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Replacements not used: J Maunder, J Simmonds, S Hill.
MUNSTER: M Haley, A Conway, D Goggin (S Arnold, 60; JJ Hanrahan, 68), R Scannell, K Earls; J Carbery, D Williams (N Cronin, 70); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 45), N Scannell (R Marshall, 57), S Archer (J Ryan, 45-80); J Kleyn (B Holland, 61), T Beirne; P O'Mahony - captain, C Cloete (T O'Donnell, 60), CJ Stander
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)