You can hear the excitement in Ian Whitten’s voice as he described the feeling of being in an Exeter Chiefs back-line when everything comes together. The bad news for Munster is that the Ulsterman experienced that buzz only last weekend as the Chiefs put Castres to the sword to set up tomorrow’s pivotal Heineken Champions Cup pool finale at Thomond Park.
The English Premiership leaders ran six tries past the French champions at Sandy Park to continue the turnaround in European fortunes and give Exeter a genuine chance of progressing to the quarter-finals for just the second time.
To do that they must not only beat Munster at a sold-out Thomond Park tomorrow evening, something only four teams have achieved in 24 seasons of the Heineken Cup but also deny the two-time champions and Pool 2 leaders a losing bonus point.
Yet when you are playing as fluently as Exeter were on home soil last Sunday to record back-to-back bonus-point wins and close Munster’s lead to four points, anything is possible.
Whitten, 31 and capped twice by Ireland in 2009, has been an Exeter Chiefs player since 2012, joining the Devon club from his native Ulster. It is fair to say the Lisburn-born centre is enjoying his rugby, especially when everything clicks as it did last Sunday.
“It’s fast. You’re on top of teams, it’s front foot, everybody is wanting the ball, everybody knows what they’re doing and you’re bouncing around out there,” Whitten told the Irish Examiner.
“You can feel the difference, you know, because sometimes the confidence isn’t quite there, you’re a bit hesitant, but we really attacked the game at the weekend. You could see the boys were hungry for it and that’s something we need to try and keep.”
The defeat of Castres was timely given Whitten’s description of less than stellar form in previous weeks with a loss at Northampton and scrappy win at Bristol.
“Although we’re top of the league, I think performances were maybe not quite where we wanted them to be. I mean, we’re still winning games or picking up bonus points on the road so it wasn’t a disaster by any means but we just thought we can get a wee bit more from this, we can play better rugby and the Castres game at the weekend, from an attack perspective, hopefully we can take a lot of confidence out of that because we are a good side and we know we can play good, attacking rugby.
“Hopefully, we can take the good feeling that we got from doing that last weekend and bring into what is a hard place to go.”
The Chiefs will have travelled to Limerick with the same belief that turned around their pool campaign at Gloucester in round four, when having failed to win their first three games, drawing at home with Munster in round one, going down to 14-man Castres in France and then losing 27-19 at home to their Premiership rivals, they turned the tables at Kingsholm to claim a bonus-point 29-17 victory over the Cherry and Whites.
“We made it really hard for ourselves but I think after the Gloucester defeat at home, everybody was deeply disappointed and we talked about Gloucester away the following week and just playing better, putting in a good display.
“We got that and we got five points there and then after that, well, we just took it game by game from there. We’d got five points at Gloucester and thought well, maybe if we got five points against Castres there might be something for us.
“Luckily enough, last weekend, we again got a good performance and so there’s a chance this Saturday we can do it.”
Victories for European rivals at Thomond Park may be rare but Whitten can say he was present on just such an occasion, when his home province staged a 22-16 Easter Sunday upset on their way to the 2012 final against Leinster.
“I was a travelling reserve for Ulster that day, so I had a pitchside seat for it. It wasn’t a vintage season in the league that year and, again, we’d a few scratchy performances leading up to that game but for whatever reason on that day, we had the main boys out and it clicked that day for us.
“They had a good team out too but it was one day everything went right for Ulster. And Gilly (Craig Gilroy) scored a good try. There was plenty of Ulster fans down at it and it was a good atmosphere after the game, for the Ulster boys anyway.
“So it can be done. There’s very few stories of it happening and a lot of stories about people getting crushed there but I think you’ve just got to ignore past history in a way and say we’re going out there on the day and hopefully play our best stuff and see what happens. And hopefully keep fighting as well.
“I think the big thing about this is that you can feel under pressure there a lot from the crowd and how they are and you can feel under pressure more than you actually are. So the important thing is, whatever situation you’re in you just have to keep fighting and try and put pressure on them and try and make them feel pressure because it’s obviously a big game for them too. So try and flip the pressure if we can.”