DONAL LENIHAN: Munster weather the storm but frustration lingers

The ride into Exeter was not for the faint of heart, Munster’s charter flight buffeted violently in gale force winds. The landing was pretty white-knuckled too, not helped by the knowledge that five earlier flights had been diverted at that stage. It all made for a strong test of the constitution which would serve Johann van Graan’s men well on Saturday at Sandy Park, writes Donal Lenihan.

A last gasp stand, when forced to defend a punishing 22-phase Exeter onslaught on their line after Joey Carbery’s well intentioned clearance kick carried 80 metres and went out on the full, was every bit as challenging as the gusts Storm Callum threw at the squad en route.

That Exeter attack looked as if it might deny the visitors the draw their Herculean efforts throughout the previous 79 minutes clearly deserved. If anything Munster know they had the capacity to win this one against the odds but, in the circumstances, finishing on level terms was a notable achievement.

With a bit more composure in the attacking zone - a recurring issue that has to be addressed to finish off try scoring opportunities - Munster could well have bagged a four point return. That said, had Duncan Williams not pulled off a superb cover tackle on Chiefs full-back Phil Dollman entering the third quarter when the hosts were already seven points ahead, Munster might well have ended empty handed.

In those circumstances to return with two points — Exeter will view it as two lost — launches Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup campaign in a positive manner. The fact that the team sought out their large pockets of loyal supporters, spread right across the ground, on the final whistle was a fair indication of how they viewed this result.

For their part, Exeter disappeared into the dressing room, frustrated at their inability to capitalise on the opportunity they were offered at the death. Experience counts for a lot in this tournament and that is something Munster have in spades.

For a club less than a decade in the top echelon of the English club game, the achievements of Exeter Chiefs in contesting the last three Premiership finals, and winning in 2017, is quite remarkable.

That success, consistency of performance and exposure to rugby of a higher standard in Europe over the last few years convinced them to set their sights even higher. A few weeks ago the clubs likable owner Tony Rowe reminded anyone who choose to listen that “we have ambitions to win a Champions Cup”.

Perennial winners in the Premiership at Sandy Park, they fear no one in their highly atmospheric Devon home. Last season, however, Leinster reminded them that they still have a journey to travel on that front when the power of the visitors pack turned a tight contest in their favour.

With another famed Irish province set to kick start their latest home campaign, the worry for Munster was that the lessons absorbed from that reversal to the eventual champions last December would now be put to full effect.

The more you analyse Exeter, the more striking the similarities between the way they and Munster play becomes. Both are extremely physical at the breakdown, love nothing more than to strangle the opposition through the power and force of their line out maul and to pummel the try line with a series of one-out runners once decamped in the opposition twenty two.

Conditions on Saturday, especially when playing into the strong wind, which Munster choose to do in the first half after winning the toss, dictated that both were well served by sticking to that cocktail of forward power.

A measure of Munster’s excellence during that testing opening period was the fact that, despite playing into a howling gale, they still enjoyed 68% of territory fashioned by their ability to control possession through the efficiency of their carries, clean outs and ball presentation.

Unfortunately, not for the first time this season, handling errors and poor decision-making close to the opposition line meant that, despite enjoying 67% possession, they failed to breach the Exeter line.

Even more galling was the concession of a try to Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie 90 seconds before the break through their well choreographed pick and drives. Given the demanding conditions, for Munster to have made it to half-time on level terms would have been a brilliant achievement.

But, true to tradition, Munster refused to bow the head. It helped that their power game in that opening period forced Exeter into making 116 tackles to Munster’s 42 which would take a toll. Not that Munster were immune on that front either given the amount of energy expended in that impressive opening half.

Both Munster props, Stephen Archer and Dave Kilcoyne, not only scrummaged well in the first 30 minutes but also carried selflessly. When that effort began to impact on their effectiveness in the scrum, Johann van Graan wasted no time in introducing another pair of international props in James Cronin and John Ryan to good effect.

Munster’s set piece platform tested Exeter like no side in the Gallagher Premiership has been able to do this season with their lineout put under all kinds of pressure. The outstanding Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Berne not only pilfered five Exeter throws between them but also contributed some key turnovers. However, the skipper will be disappointed that the clinical efficiency that normally characterises their lineout maul broke down on a couple of crucial incidences.

Much of the talk entering this contest surrounded the loss of Conor Murray and Alby Mathewson to injury, yet Duncan Williams deserves immense credit for delivering such a rounded performance. Apart altogether from that crucial cover tackle, his darting runs kept the Chiefs back row honest, his box kicking in the most trying of conditions was highly effective, and his continuity play assured.

Munster also showed character in absorbing the loss of their best attacker in Keith Earls who was forced off after tweaking a hamstring in the warm up. Darren Sweetnam, extremely unlucky to be left outside the original match day squad, stepped up seamlessly while new full back Mike Haley delivered his most polished performance since arriving from Sale Sharks.

It would have been a travesty had Carbery’s attempted clearance kick in the final minutes proved fatal as he continues to find his feet in new surroundings. Not only was he defensively brave but his range of passing is magical and will prove central to opening up some well-oiled defences in time to come.

To really threaten silverware, Munster’s attacking game needs to improve.

The return of Murray and Chris Farrell from injury should aid that in the not too distant future. In the meantime, Saturday’s hard fought two points gained keeps the pot boiling nicely in their continued absence.

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