Munster’s squad depth ahead of the new campaign was given a stern test by English heavyweights Exeter Chiefs as Johann van Graan’s team was well beaten in Cork last night.
Upcoming Champions Cup pool rivals Exeter Chiefs, Premiership final runners-up to Saracens in defence of their 2016/17 title last May, proved a step up in class from last week’s visitors to Musgrave Park. Declan Kidney’s London Irish, beaten more comfortably than the 32-28 scoreline suggests, were well organised but rebuilding for a post-relegation season in the Championship. Exeter are the finished article and with nine internationals in an experienced starting line-up for this final pre-season friendly they made light work of a Munster outfit still missing a sizeable Ireland Test contingent.
When the sides meet again in Europe at Sandy Park in round one on October 13, there should be more parity between the rivals but this was a more one-sided contest as Exeter strolled into a 12-0 half-time lead thanks to tries from wing Olly Woodburn and prop Harry Williams and then maintaining a clean sheet with rock-solid defence in the second period.
Exeter looked completely at ease on Munster’s newly-installed artificial playing surface, which had a week earlier produced nine tries and a narrow win for the home side over London Irish.
It was Munster who initially lacked fluency, particularly at the set-piece, the visitors capitalising on a misfiring lineout in the home 22 off the back of an excellent touchfinder from Irish veteran Gareth Steenson to move the ball at pace from right to left for Woodburn to open the scoring on 10 minutes.
Steenson missed the touchline conversion but nailed his second go from the same place after Munster had been exposed again, this time centre Ollie Devoto scything through tackles before offloading on the 22 to midfield partner Ian Whitten, another Ulsterman enjoying success in the English west country.
From Whitten the ball reached tighthead Williams who got over the line into the corner.
It would be unfair to say Munster were all at sea even given their new aquamarine alternate strip, inspired as it is by the Cliffs of Moher and the Atlantic Ocean beneath.
They did begin to find their feet as the match progressed and enjoyed some dominance early into the second half, head coach van Graan resisting wholesale changes at the break but instead introducing JJ Hanrahan for Bill Johnston just after the interval along with Sammy Arnold in midfield for his partner of last season Rory Scannell.
Two-cap Springbok Arno Botha, signed from London Irish following their relegation from the English Premiership, had made his debut off the bench just 32 minutes in. Botha replaced academy No.8 Gavin Coombes but slotted in at openside as Munster rejigged their back row, Tommy O’Donnell having been withdrawn following a heavy collision on 18 minutes.
The 27-year-old certainly used his big frame, 1.91 metres (6ft 3ins) and 103 kilogrammes (16st 3lbs), to good effect as Munster muscled their way back into contention, camping in the Exeter 22 for much of the third quarter. Yet for all their possession and territory they failed to produce the cutting edge required to breach a watertight defence that will continue to prove a tough nut to crack when the competition hots up on the European stage.
It made for a frustrating evening for the watching van Graan, who described “a very strange game”.
“We spent the first 40 minutes almost all in our own half and then the second 40 minutes almost all in their half. There wasn’t a lot of flow between attack and D from either side. Two different styles and the frustrating thing is they scored off lineout turnover, one phase and they scored. They were such easy points but all credit to them for scoring them.
We didn’t see any ball in the first half because we made so many mistakes. Exeter, they punish you. When I saw the fixtures for our pool I welcomed this fixture because we played a good quality side who keep the ball in play. We kept the ball in the second half but the frustrating thing was one yard out we seemed to cough it up quite a few times.”
Despite the lack of cutting edge, van Graan said he was not concerned as Munster head into round one of the PRO14 against conference rivals the Cheetahs in Limerick next Saturday.
“I won’t say it’s a concern. These 30 guys trained together for the last few weeks, so no excuses, the best team won tonight. We gave a lot of guys opportunities and you’ve seen from the substitutions we made a plan and just went with guys (to give them gametime). There were debuts tonight and we could have kept more experienced guys on for longer but we got as many guys out there as possible and I thought a lot of them used the opportunity.”
M Haley (S Fitzgerald, 61); D Sweetnam (I Keatley, 73), D Goggin (S Daly, 61), R Scannell (S Arnold, 43), C Nash (L Coombes, 57); B Johnston (JJ Hanrahan, 43), J Hart (N Cronin, 57); D Kilcoyne (C Gleeson, 43, J Loughman, 57), M Sherry (K O’Byrne, 43), B Scott (C Parker, 32-70); J Kleyn (F Wycherley, 43), B Holland - captain (D O’Shea, 57); D O’Callaghan (S O’Connor, 62), T O’Donnell (J Daly, 18; G Coombes, 70), G Coombes (A Botha, 32; Kleyn 73).
P Dollman; S Cordero, I Whitten, O Devoto, O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White; A Hepburn, J Yeandle - captain, H Williams; O Atkins, S Skinner; D Armand, M Kvesic, S Simmonds.
M Low, J Innard, E Taione, A Petch, T Francis, T Salmon, S Lonsdale, T Lawday, S Townsend, J Maunder, J Simmonds, H Slade, T Hendrickson, T O’Flaherty, M Bodilly.
Sean Gallagher (IRFU)