Exeter aiming to rewrite history at Thomond Park

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline.

Exeter aiming to rewrite history at Thomond Park

Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline.

In their relentless pursuit of the Heineken Cup, Munster have gone through the emotional wringer from delirium to desolation and just about everywhere in between.

The tournament has tossed them into the maelstrom of the pool competition, daring them to find a way of keeping their heads above water by avoiding the worst of all fates, the pointless home result. The temptation is to dismiss such a notion as an irrelevance, that Limerick guarantees home immunity from an affliction all too common elsewhere.

Only once has it failed to work. Only once, over a period of almost a quarter of a century, has the Red Army borne silent witness to Munster finishing a pool tie at Thomond Park with an embarrassing nul points against their name. Only once in 77 European fixtures.

Nobody else comes close to matching that. Munster have won 72 of those games against an assortment of 35 clubs: 12 French, nine English, eight Welsh, four Italian and two Scottish. Of those, 80% found it a literally pointless exercise.

Exeter Chiefs have not been there before but they’re on their way knowing they have to do more than merely win at Thomond Park on Saturday evening if they are to elbow their way aboard the last boat into the quarter-finals, and throw Munster overboard.

For such piracy to come to pass, the Chiefs know that the biggest of scalps will get them nowhere unless they take it by four clear match points, either by denying Munster a losing bonus or, in the event of their getting one, that they cough up a try bonus in the process.

The history books are littered with examples of how more successful clubs, French as well as English, have found Thomond a disintegrating experience, as if they’ve been trying to win a rugby match and jump fences of Grand National proportions at the same time.

Castres have fallen there seven times, Perpignan five, Gloucester four, while Saracens, Racing, Ospreys, Harlequins and Sale have all been counted out three times. Exeter will relish taking their turn and not simply because they have no choice.

They are not top of the English Premiership for nothing. Rob Baxter, their director of rugby who captained the club for 10 seasons and is close to completing another 10 as the chief of the Chiefs, has done some famous things en route to becoming the most respected of English coaches.

Dethroning Saracens in an English Premiership final is not quite on the scale as ambushing Munster where they are used to sweeping all before them. The hosts will be wary, alert to the danger of opponents who squeezed a draw out of the closest of encounters in Devon back in the autumn.

That wariness will be sharpened by certain coincidences between Exeter this weekend and Leicester Tigers, the only team to render Munster pointless at the pool stage, winning 31-19 three seasons ago. The historical similarities date back to a time when Paulie, Rog, Donnacha and the lads were defending their title as champions of Europe.

They made a pig’s ear of it when the Tigers found the nerve to be the first British team to win in Limerick 12 seasons ago. They did so with the aid of an Irish quartet — Leo Cullen at lock, Shane Jennings in the back row, Geordan Murphy on the right wing and an uncapped Ulsterman, Ian Humphreys, at fly half.

Exeter also have an uncapped northerner at 10, Gareth Steenson, still prolific coming up to 35 but parked on the bench against Castres last week in familiar company alongside Ian Whitten, who played his first match for Ireland 10 years ago and his last eight days later.

A native of Lisburn, he was playing for Ulster’s academy and Steenson for Cornish Pirates in the fifth tier of the English League when Munster last won the Heineken Cup in 2008. Exeter will draw huge pride from the fact that they alone stand between one of Europe’s elite and another quarter-final.

Anyone who wants to beat Smyth’s record can go whistle

As a boy at Bandon Grammar School, there seemed no end to Bertie Smyth’s talent as an all-rounder.

A national Under-16 triple jump champion, he played Gaelic, hockey and rugby, going all the way into Munster’s team against the Australians in 1976.

A past-president of the Munster branch, Bertie is also in possession of a world record which assumes still greater magnitude with the passing of every year.

Glasgow Warriors’ Ali Price challenges Cardiff Blues’ George Earle in the Champions Cup last weekend. There were 24 penalties in the game — Bertie Smyth would have been laughing. Picture: Andrew Milligan
Glasgow Warriors’ Ali Price challenges Cardiff Blues’ George Earle in the Champions Cup last weekend. There were 24 penalties in the game — Bertie Smyth would have been laughing. Picture: Andrew Milligan

Back in 1968, nobody thought Bob Beamon’s freakish leap out of the sand pit to win the Olympic title in Mexico would ever be matched and, as a long jumper himself, nobody would have appreciated that more than Smyth. Beamon’s defiance of gravity stood untouched for more than 20 years before the American Mike Powell eclipsed it by a few inches.

Smyth’s record is now into its 27th year since he blew for no-side between Monmouthshire and the Wallabies at Ebbw Vale in November 1992.

By then he had awarded a grand total 40 penalties and 12 free kicks. I know because I was there and while my count stopped at 49, the Welsh Rugby Annual duly recorded the figure for posterity at 52.

There were 13 shots at goal, 41 lines-out, 20 scrums and not much time for anything else.

In the Champions’ Cup last weekend, Glasgow-Cardiff Blues yielded the highest penalty count at a pathetic 24 — not even halfway towards Bertie Smyth’s untouchable number.

Graham crossing a great international divide

Gary Graham completed a unique double yesterday, the first player to be picked for successive Six Nations’ campaigns by different countries.

At the same stage of the same week last year, England picked him in their squad for a challenge which began to unravel with a squeaky home win over Wales before truly coming apart at the seams in the next match, at Murrayfield against Graham’s native Scotland.

Gary Graham in action for Newcastle in the Champions Cup last weekend. Picture: James Crombie/Inpho
Gary Graham in action for Newcastle in the Champions Cup last weekend. Picture: James Crombie/Inpho

Even then, Eddie Jones preferred to keep Graham in reserve rather than wrapping him up in a Red Rose. The Scots-born son of a Scotland prop, George Graham, he had followed his dad in joining Newcastle.

Graham, junior, remained there in a state of international limbo until earlier this season before deciding that the grass seemed greener on the other side of the border, after all.

The Scots have now rewarded him for his volte face by granting him belated recognition. Their earlier refusal to do so led Graham to use his residential qualification and switch allegiance to England before thinking better of it, eventually….

Sexton joins the award greats

Johnny Sexton followed in some famous footsteps when he stepped up to collect the (English) Rugby Union Writers’ Club award at their annual dinner in central London on Monday night as he was named the Personality of the Year.

In doing so, he followed such greats as Gareth Edwards, Jean-Pierre Rives, Ian McGeechan, Francois Pienaar, Sean Fitpatrick, Jonah Lomu, Matin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Brian O’Driscoll.

Sexton joins kickers like Ollie Campbell (1982), Jonathan Davies (1986), Jonny Wilkinson (2002), Dan Carter (2015) and Owen Farrell (2017) in winning the award. Unlike both his immediate predecessors, Sexton took the trouble to honour the occasion with his presence.

Carter received his award by video link from Paris. Farrell did not appear at last year’s bash to collect his, leaving it to England forwards’ coach Steve Borthwick to receive it on his behalf.

Resisting any temptation to use injury as an excuse, Sexton joined more than 400 other guests.

It left the home element in a stellar assembly hoping that if England can’t win the World Cup, Ireland will.

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