Hawkeye Sidekick

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.