Munster 9 Chiefs 7
Exeter Chiefs 7
Mark Stevens at Thomond Park
In the end there was to be no Great Escape for Exeter Chiefs, their aspirations in the Heineken Champions Cup over for another year.
Given next to no hope having failed to record a victory in their opening three games in Pool Two, Rob Baxter’s side could not have given any more in their quest to topple two-time Kings of Europe, Munster, at fortress Thomond Park.
In a relentless and brutal final round showdown, it took a late penalty from Irish international Joey Carbery to finally bring the curtain down on the Devonians, who for more than an hour had threatened to become only the fourth side to emerge victorious from Limerick in 24 seasons of the competition.
Playmaker Carbery had stroked the home side into an early lead, only for the Chiefs to counter with the game’s only try midway through the first half when Don Armand powered over from close range for a score, converted by young Joe Simmonds.
Carbery added a second penalty before the break and it was his effort in the final ten minutes which ultimately settled a titanic tussle between the two sides.
The Chiefs, however, can take great heart from their European exploits, particularly the second half of the campaign, and the rousing reception they were given from the throng of Munster fans at the final whistle was a fitting endorsement of just how hard they had pushed their on-field heroes over two fixtures this season.
Having given themselves a fighting chance of qualification thanks to back-to-back victories over Gloucester and Castres, Baxter made just one enforced change to his starting line-up from the previous week’s win against Castres.With Tomas Francis ruled out through illness, Harry Williams was promoted from the bench with Greg Holmes added as back-up.
Munster, meanwhile, were fully armed for battle, parading Conor Murray and Carbery at half-backs, Keith Earls on the wing, while up front Tadhg Berne, CJ Stander and skipper Peter O’Mahony were the notable names in the home pack.
Spurred on by a capacity crowd, the opening skirmishes were savage as both sides tore into one another with a ferocity more akin to Test Match level. The two rivals were unwilling to give an inch in the quest to gain the early ascendancy, but it was Munster who edged in front on six minutes.
Having won two successive penalties, they positioned themselves nicely within the Chiefs 22, before they looked to rumble their forwards towards the line.The Chiefs manfully held the initial threat at bay, but when a second surge followed, the visitors were pinged by French referee Jerome Garces, allowing Carbery to slot an easy penalty.
Thomond Park, drenched in red, erupted into a wall of noise as the Irish province landed the first meaningful blow.Exeter’s response, however, was impressive and within six minutes they had hit back themselves, claiming the game’s opening try.
Winning a penalty just inside the Munster half, Simmonds drilled the kick to the corner, setting up Exeter’s trademark, five-metre, catch-and-drive routine. Jack Yeandle fizzed in the set-piece, the Chiefs claimed it in the middle, before applying the drive. It seemed destined for the line, until a home defender illegally positioned himself on the deck, forcing it to the floor
Playing with the advantage, though, the Chiefs merely continued their raid in and around the home line, eventually being rewarded when Armand powered his way over the whitewash. Simmonds converted to ensure maximum reward for the Devonians.
With the natives silenced, it was the 2,000-strong Travelling Tribe who made themselves heard, bellowing out the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ at a volume which the Chiefs were using to fuel both their attacking and defensive commitments.
Half chances came and went through the ever-willing runs of Messrs Cordero, O’Flaherty and Nowell, whilst up front there was not one Exeter player hiding when it came to putting in the hard yards.
Likewise, Munster were not backwards in coming forwards and with their scrum looking more than useful, plus tireless work at the breakdown, they never allowed the Chiefs to edge clear, instead reducing the deficit just past the half-hour mark when Carbery landed a second penalty.
As half-time approached, the Chiefs were awarded two penalties, both of which were dispatched to the corner in pursuit of greater reward. Although the visitors huffed and puffed, they could not blast their way through the red wall of defence and the scoreboard remained untouched at the turn.
HALF TIME MUNSTER 6 EXETER CHIEFS 7
With little to choose between either side, the second half began in much the same way the first period ended. Exeter bossed territory and possession, Aussie scrum-half Nic White the Chief Conductor with some sublime kicks that pegged the home side back deep inside their own half.
Then, with ball in hand, the visitors tried to pull their rivals left and right with a series of attacking raids, only to fall foul of Garces fo holding on just as they looked primed to strike.
Man of the match Berne was heading up the Munster defensive duties, regularly putting his body on the line, as well as positioning himself like an immovable force when it came to the breakdown.
It was clearly frustrating for the Chiefs, who then had to perform heroics of their own at the other end. Andrew Conway’s little chip and chase in behind had the visitors scrambling on their own line, before replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie pulled off a terrific turnover ball, just as it looked as though Munster were set to score in the right-hand corner.
With just a point separating the two sides entering into the latter stages, the Chiefs added fresh muscle from the sidelines to try and glean that all-important score. Again, they were afforded a great chance when given a penalty, which they kicked to the corner.
But, unlike so often this term, Cowan-Dickie’s throw was picked off with his first touch of the ball by replacement Billy Holland and Munster were able to not only clear their lines, but thunder down field themselves.
And when they got a line-out of their own, ten metres into the Chiefs half, it was Sam Skinner who was singled out by the French officials for pulling down O’Mahony in the air. It gifted Munster an opportunity, which Carbery was never going to turn down.The youngster thundered over a lengthy kick, igniting bedlam amongst the majority inside the stadium.
Even then, the Chiefs could have potentially salvaged something in the dying embers. Baxter’s side went through 20+ phases with their final efforts of the game, but it was sadly not to be.
Although their hopes were ended, Baxter spoke of many positives in his post-match assessment.Lessons will certainly be learnt in the wake of this season’s toils, so expect a response of sorts from the Chiefs when it all kicks-off against next year.
Munster: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin 58), K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray (A Mathewson 65); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 67), N Scannell (R Marshall 73), J Ryan (S Archer 56); J Kleyn, T Berne (B Holland 67); P O’Mahony (capt), T O’Donnell (A Botha h/t), CJ Stander. Replacement (not used): T Bleyendaal.
Penalties - Carbery (3)
Chiefs: J Nowell; S Cordero, H Slade, O Devoto (I Whitten 58), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn (B Moon 54), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 58), H Williams (G Holmes 67); D Dennis, J Hill; S Skinner, D Armand, M Kvesic. Replacements (not used): S Lonsdale, J Maunder, G Steenson.
Try - Armand; Conversion - J Simmonds
Referee: J Garces