A new Heineken Champions Cup season, and for the first time in nine seasons a new destination for Munster supporters as they journey to Exeter for the opening pool game of the 2018-19 campaign.
Not since Tony McGahan took the province to Reading’s Madejski Stadium to play London Irish have Munster broken new ground in Europe and this afternoon’s game at Sandy Park means that Exeter Chiefs will become Munster’s 10th different English opponent in the competition.
After three seasons in a row of visits to Welford Road to face Leicester Tigers, all in the back-to-back, home and away rounds three and four, the draw has finally given supporters an excuse to brush up on their geography and focus their efforts on a first trip to the cathedral city in Devon, where the Chiefs have created a fortress that has been the foundation for consecutive trips to the English Premiership final and first league title in 2017.
Exeter’s fly-half Gareth Steenson, an Irish veteran of the Chief’s rise from the second tier to elite domestic status and now European contenders, has played in 27 of his club’s 31 European fixtures since a 2012 debut against Leinster. The Ulsterman believes Sandy Park is an experience that Munster’s travelling support should enjoy, in terms of atmosphere rather than outcome, he hopes.
What can Munster expect?
“By the sounds of it a bit of rain,” Steenson told the Irish Examiner this week.
“Our supporters are very passionate, very much like the Munster supporters are and all things aside I think it will be a great weekend for everyone who’s coming over from Ireland to experience what Sandy Park’s about.”
The novelty works both ways and Steenson, the Chiefs’ record points scorer in Europe with 216 points, says the home fans are keenly anticipating the visit of Munster this afternoon.
“I know our supporters are very excited about the opportunities that they now have. They look at the groups and they see that we haven’t played these guys before in Europe. They’re very excited to see a Munster side come over to Exeter as well.
“Hopefully it makes for a good game and we can put on a good spectacle.”
Wasps were Munster’s first Anglo opposition, back in 1996-97, during the second year of the Heineken Cup when everyone was still finding their feet and away wins were elusive. Wasps found that out, returning home from Thomond Park on the wrong end of a 49-22 drubbing in front of a 6,000 attendance.
That the Munster home win was sandwiched between heavy losses on the road, 48-18 in Cardiff and the infamous 60-19 shellacking in Toulouse highlighted the precarious nature of foreign travel.
The following season’s trip to London, the first foray over the water to dear old England, produced a similar tale of disappointment as Munster lost a high-scoring battle with Harlequins 48-40 at The Stoop.
A draw in Neath in 98-99 was followed by the first European away win in Italy at Petrarca that secured a debut in the knockout stages, albeit an away quarter-final at Colomiers and a 23-9 reverse.
Munster, though, were beginning to get the travel bug and Saracens became the victims of a landmark victory on the road in England in the first of many visits to Vicarage Road, this one in November 1999 at the start of the run to the 2000 final a nail-biting 35-34 win in Watford.
The final, of course, brought new opponents in Northampton, followed by Bath, Leicester Tigers, in the 2002 final, Gloucester, Sale Sharks and then London Irish in 2010-11.
Many of these English opponents have provided the drama that has made Munster’s European journey the epic saga that has entered rugby folklore in the province and Exeter Chiefs, relatively new to the Champions Cup, have the back story, stadium and culture to suggest that this could be another Anglo-Irish rivalry to match those with the likes of Gloucester, round two opponents next Saturday at Thomond Park and Leicester.
Steenson says the Exeter players are equally excited about the opportunity to face new opposition, travel to different places and play in unfamiliar surroundings.
“Yes, absolutely it does. This is what we’re in this game for. We want to go out and challenge ourselves against the best teams in Europe. We haven’t played Castres before either and so the next two weeks are really exciting for us.
“We’re very much looking forward to challenging ourselves against new opponents and teams that have a bit of pedigree in the top flight of European rugby. This is where we’re really going to understand what we’re all about.
“We’ve obviously had a great start to the Premiership but now we want to see if we can bring our game and transfer it out onto the pitch this weekend and hopefully bring a bit more intensity with it.
“In training this week there’s a bit of an edge right through the whole squad, the guys who are getting the opportunity to play and the guys who unfortunately have missed out. There’s been a real bite and it’s very exciting when this competition comes around. You’ve got to work extremely hard to get into this competition and you don’t want it to pass you by.”
The same mentality applies for the travelling supporters who are set to converge on Exeter and have been primed in detail for this latest destination by the Munster Rugby Supporters Club.
MRSC members can get discounts on food and drinks in city centre pub the Hole in the Wall on Little Castle Street and the following advice gives a taste of what to expect this weekend.
Sandy Park, says the MRSC, is “an out-of-town ground on a hill, it’s a bit exposed and can be windy, and in winter it is bitter cold. You have been warned!
“There are plenty of food and drink outlets around the ground so get there early and enjoy the hospitality, atmosphere and banter.” It may be a new destination but the gameplan, for supporters at least, is exactly the same.