Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 9 – 7 Exeter Chiefs

Heineken Champions Cup Drama at Thomond Park

Munster Rugby secured top spot in Pool 2 with a nerve jangling, tension filled 9-7 victory over Exeter Chiefs at a sold out Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was in attendance and reflects on the fixture twenty-four hours on from the result.

There was a sense of expectancy in the air around Thomond Park pregame as supporters of both Munster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs mingled in the fan zone and club houses adjoining to the hallowed venue. The warm up sessions from both sides was an indication of how the contest would go; both pack units executing set piece drills with increasing velocity.

Stand Up and Fight sung by Jean Wallace lifted the roof off the West Stand as the atmosphere cranked up to the maximum. The scene was set for the pool 2 decider and the early exchanges were brutally physical and abrasive. Both sides looking for potential weaknesses with early attacking phase play but line breaks were at a premium.

Strong Munster Rugby start

Munster Rugby opened the scoring on six minutes with a Joey Carbery penalty straight in front of the posts after good work from the Munster Rugby pack. Stander ripping the jersey from an Exeter Chiefs second row to highlight an offside indiscretion as the maul progressed with interest. The end of this play saw Conor Murray go down with an apparent shoulder injury but the scrum half continued in the contest.

Exeter Chiefs response immediate

If the home supporters thought that this would be another cakewalk end of pool home game fixture, they were duly put on notice as Exeter Chiefs response to the opening score was emphatic on thirteen minutes.

A crunching hit on Peter O’Mahony causing a turnover and after Niall Scannell was pinged at the breakdown, Exeter Chiefs had no hesitation to go for the corner. Simmonds’ kick was on the money and it was maul time for the English side.

The maul was brought down just on the Munster Rugby line; with a penalty already secured from that collapse, Don Armand crashed over after good recycling and phase play. TMO was called to confirm and the try was given. The conversion was emphatically kicked over by Simmonds and Munster Rugby were behind.

Kicking Game Advances 

The remainder of the half saw a cat and mouse battle ensue. Exeter Chiefs making sure that their exit strategy was clinically executed. Nick White must be applauded for his kick game as time after time, his kicks gave his colleagues maximum time to chase and close down the Munster Rugby ball receiver. The breakdown battle was chaotic. Exeter Chiefs disrupting Munster Rugby ruck ball.

With Garces content to let the breakdown battle turn into a free for all, Munster Rugby were increasingly getting isolated in their ball presentation and Conor Murray needed to box kick more frequently that anticipated with mixed results. Exeter Chiefs were rattling Munster Rugby in their line speed, breakdown work and kicking game.

Jittery Munster Rugby attacking play

This fixture was now a test of Munster Rugby’s ability to execute their attacking game plan. The pack ball carries were struggling to create holes in the Chiefs defense and as a result, there was an air of panic at times with some of the attacking plays run by Munster Rugby. It resembled at times their performance against Racing 92 in Bordeaux last season.

With Munster Rugby not getting any joy in the way of attacking gain line breaks, it came as a relief that the home side front row won a penalty for an emphatic scrum drive on twenty minutes. Joey Carbery’s kick was unerringly accurate and the gap was now down to a point. 6-7.

Exeter Chiefs continued to probe with mixed results. Jack Nowell at full back looking most likely to create attacking opportunities from his full back position. Their persistence to kick deep into Munster Rugby territory was having good rewards and more indecisive Munster Rugby game management with ball in hand saw the English side in prime position to score more point on forty minutes only for quality breakdown work allowing Stander to run the ball out into touch.

There was an increasingly air of the nervousness in the stands at half-time. Munster Rugby’s pack platform had not materialized. As a result, the attacking game plan was neutralized by Exeter Chiefs. The kicking game was been won by Exeter Chiefs; adjustments were required from the hosts.

Precious scoring opportunities

The second half saw both sides have potentially promising moments. The game was preciously offering little in terms of expansive play. This was a proper arm wrestle; a game of attrition, a game of sheer physicality as both sides battered the other with minimum creativity. Brawn was the order of the day.

Munster Rugby on video analysis will look to key contributions of a number of personnel in the pack. Tadhg Beirne in the third quarter was outstanding, his jackal positioning over the breakdown winning three penalties to launch attacking platforms. CJ Stander ball carrying and tackle count setting the tone.

Exeter Chiefs continued to threaten with their attacking maul a key threat. More points were turned down by the visitors heading into the fourth quarter as they looked to turn the screw to secure a decisive second try. The game was becoming more and more frayed for the hosts as Murray and Conway had good opportunities denied by superb last ditch defending.

Line out steal from Holland key

Cue the key moment of the contest. Tadhg Beirne departed the pitch and was replaced by the ever reliable Billy Holland. A line out five meters out from the Munster Rugby line. The defensive line out was ditched and the decision was to contest the line out. The risk was clear; lose the line out and the try was almost certainly conceded. The lift from Loughman and Stander for Holland was outstanding; the steal sublime and the energy in the crowd was reinvigorated as the home supporters rose in unison to applaud the play.

The line out steal was a key moment as Exeter Chiefs were now losing the gain line battle to Munster Rugby. Phase play was more direct from the hosts and there was more urgency in ball presentation and quicker ruck ball from Mathewson upon his introduction. Dan Goggin and Arno Botha starting to see more ball carries and creating more gain line breaks.

It set the platform for the key penalty award on seventy minutes. Exeter Chiefs pinged in the line out and there was no hesitation from Carbery to go for the posts. His kicking was emphatic and the Thomond Park faithful roared the kick over. 9-7 and suddenly Exeter Chiefs need to change their game plan to get back into the contest.

However, Munster Rugby defensively have to be applauded for a disciplined performance in those closing stages. Their line speed was on point and their decision to commit to the breakdown was superb. Rhys Marshall was a key cog in several defensive plays. The New Zealand stalking the ball carrier and making several key hits resulting in lost gain line yards for Exeter Chiefs.

Exeter Chiefs from been just outside the Munster 22 were now back on the Munster Rugby 10 meter line. Their attacking passing moves were rather static and moving ponderously from side to side culminating in Munster Rugby exposing an Exeter Chiefs player and putting him into touch. Garces blew the final whistle. Palpable relief.

Munster Rugby Learnings

What did we learn last night? The determination, grit, hunger and sheer desire to win this contest from Munster Rugby was to the fore. They lost the territory and possession battle. They lost the open kicking game but Munster Rugby refused to wilt and Exeter Chiefs like so many other teams who come to Thomond Park were caught at the death and lost the contest.

The breakdown was a mess. Garces and officiating crew should have handled this area of play better but it clearly rattled Munster Rugby in their ability to launch attacks. The attacking game plan was frantic at times; rushed game management decisions with ball in hand all too common. The ferocity of the breakdown will continue to be like this in the quarter final; coaching and player review of this area is required.

The Munster Rugby scrum did go well last night and should have yielded more reward. There was at least three scrums where Munster Rugby were unlucky not to win penalties. Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan provided a solid set piece throughout. The maul defense improved massively after Armand’s try.

Exeter Chiefs kicking game plan caused Munster Rugby massive issues. Haley was assured under the high ball but there were clear cohesion issues in how Munster Rugby players were slow to support their full back for a possible offload. This needs to improve as the business end of the season fast approaches.

A hard fought win, a gritty performance but Munster Rugby management will realize that the level of accuracy with ball in hand has to improve dramatically by the time the side travel to Murrayfield at the end of March to face Edinburgh Rugby side.

Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 2

Munster under pressure

An interesting pool awaits in pool two with intense pack battles the order of the day with Munster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby and Castres in the mix. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the pool and has genuine concerns about Munster Rugby this season. 

Munster Rugby vulnerable?

When you consider Munster Rugby’s season so far, it reads played six; won three (all at home), lost three (all away). The road trip performances have seen the Irish province leak thirty plus points and there is no quick fix in terms of the defensive issues seen so far. The scrum half injury crisis could be a decisive blow as well with star player Conor Murray not in contention to play in the competition’s first two rounds at least. The home form will need to be on point to progress but nothing will be taken for granted. 

Exeter Chiefs look best equipped to take advantage of Munster Rugby vulnerability. Their imposing pack has being their foundation and their ability to turn penalty count to tries using their marauding maul is a source of great concern for their pool opponents. Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter have also evolved their game plan with Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Alex Cuthbert resulting in some very impressive score tallies. The home form in Sandy Park will be strong; question mark on the road trip form which did lag last season so an interesting subplot. 

Gloucester Rugby make a welcome return to the competition; an incredible rugby town and knowledgeable rugby support. The Shed will be hopping for this tournament. Gloucester Rugby are evolving into a very competitive side; their expansive play seen to full effect last season and with their acquisition of Danny Ciprani, the attacking options are endless with an extremely pacy back three (Marshall, Trinder, Sharples). A team which has recruited well in the pack with a strong South African influence. Grobler at lock has all the attributes to be a sensational signing. A team to be feared and their home opener against Castres will gauge morale and confidence of pool progression here. 

Castres. The great enigma of European Cup competition. When they are interested (more than likely at home), they can cause massive issues for travelling teams but their policy of fielding below strength sides on the road will mean that the French Top 14 kingpins will languish in the mid-pack. An opportunity perhaps for the other pool teams to secure five points in their home games? 

Verdict:

The hope is that we will see some exciting contests but who am I kidding, the arm wrestle games will be a key theme and start with the Exeter Chiefs home opener against Munster Rugby. Potentially two teams to advance from this group given that Castres may travel light on the road. Munster Rugby look vulnerable here and suspect a last round miracle may be required to advance as a pool runner up. Exeter Chiefs for me look the form side in this pool. Plenty of twists and turns in this pool.