THAT was a game Munster will be glad to have put behind them. Johann van Graan’s side will attack with relish preparations for this Saturday’s visit of Gloucester, after returning home from a daunting, Heineken Champions Cup pool opener, at Exeter Chiefs, with a lot more than expected.
A tie usually does exactly what it says on the tin when two teams share the spoils, but while Munster have now opened both of their last two European campaigns with valuable draws on the road, they have returned home with contrasting emotions. This time, the exit from Sandy Park, on Saturday night, was a lot perkier than the previous year’s retreat from Castres.
Both results, of course, came with two points attached, yet when Munster, then under Rassie Erasmus, scraped a 17-17 draw at Stade Pierre Fabre, there was a feeling they had just got out of dodge and were grateful for their good fortune, after Castres fly-half, Benjamin Urdapilleta, missed both a late penalty and a last-gasp drop-goal attempt to win the game.
In Exeter, van Graan’s men had every right to celebrate the draw, in front of their thousands of noisy travelling supporters, in the 12,749 Sandy Park crowd. It was a hard-earned and thoroughly deserved outcome, against the English Premiership leaders, in a match played in the most difficult of conditions.
It was a performance and result that should put some oomph into the fledgling campaign and take some wind out of the sails of the Chiefs, who will look at this as two points very much lost.
That represents a double whammy for Munster, as they get their gameplan together for a Gloucester side that edged past Castres 19-14 yesterday, at Kingsholm, thanks to the boot of mercurial fly-half, Danny Cipriani.
“I’ll take that any day of the week,” van Graan said of the morale-boosting draw. “We started off with a draw last season, too, away. They didn’t get four points. They could have won it there, at the end. If they did, the picture would be different.
“For all that effort, we deserved the two points. We drew a line in the sand this week, in relation to Europe. It means so much to not only the team, but also the club and that was evident, when you look at the support out there today. That is as good a two points as you will earn.”
With successive home dates at Thomond Park, against Gloucester and then Castres, in round three in December, Munster now have an opportunity to take a firm grip on Pool 2, as pre-tournament fancies, Exeter, prepare for a French excursion this weekend, before home and then away, south-west derbies with the Cherry and Whites.
There is a lot of road left to travel, but even this early into the competition, the final-round return against the Chiefs looks pivotal, certainly in the mind of Exeter’s astute head coach, Rob Baxter.
“It would be an incredible occasion for us, if it was winner-takes-all at Thomond Park; it would be an amazing day,” Baxter said. “I hope, maybe, it doesn’t. I hope we will both be through when we get there. We’ve got to go find some wins now.”
This should have been one of them. Exeter came into the European campaign with six wins from six starts in the Premiership, collecting five bonus points in the process, conceding the fewest points, and scoring the most, in the league to date. They also had the comfort of a home ground not disposed to offering gifts to visitors.
For all the good omens collected pre-game in the Chiefs’ dreamcatcher, not even the boisterous nature of their supporters’ ‘Tomahawk Chop’ war chant could stir Baxter’s men out of their defensive shells, as Munster, playing into a strong wind in the first-half, dominated possession.
The visitors had already lost Ireland wing Keith Earls to a tight hamstring in the warm-up and gone behind to a 19th-minute Gareth Steenson penalty, underlining the false impression statistics can give to a game. Munster enjoyed 68% territory and 67% possession in the first-half and still found themselves 10-3 down at the break. Joey Carbery’s 31st-minute penalty had levelled the scores, only for hooker, Luke Cowan-Dickie, to rumble over in a rare Chiefs foray on the brink on the interval, with Steenson converting.
That Munster trailed was not down to a lack of effort. Their possession was positive, particularly into a wind that forced Carbery to kick sideways to reach touch and send passes off course. Yet, last season’s habit of undoing good work through sloppy handling resurfaced when it mattered most, in front of the Exeter line. Even so, the 28 phases Munster put together in the minutes leading to the half-hour mark were sufficiently impressive to get van Graan out of his seat in the coaches’ box and give his team a standing ovation, as it earned the scrum that laid the foundations for Carbery’s opening penalty.
With the wind at their backs in the second-half, Munster were better-equipped and Exeter suitably handicapped. A driving maul got Chris Cloete over the line in the 51st minute, only for the pack to be penalised in the corner, while, seven minutes later, there was another attacking lineout inside the 22, the first from replacement hooker, Rhys Marshall, picked off by Exeter’s Don Armand. The Chiefs briefly threatened to extend their lead, only for Munster scrum-half, Duncan Williams, to save the day with a try-saving tackle on full-back Phil Dollman, before CJ Stander got his reward for another afternoon of tireless carrying, with a try in the 64th minute, the Carbery conversion drawing the visitors level.
That stirred Exeter into action and though Munster did well to keep them at distance over the closing 14 minutes, they still found themselves hanging on for dear life: the Chiefs were gifted an attacking scrum on the visitors’ 22, after Carbery overcooked his kick upfield and sent the ball dead. It was meant to relieve pressure, but only piled it back onto Munster’s shoulders. That they withstood the Exeter storm, and Storm Callum’s winds, said much about the character of this side. It is the constant that will serve them well this season, until the other moving parts click into place.
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, 73); 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)