Munster seize their moment and provide the faithful with a reminder of good times
What once you took for granted was long since replaced with something else, a run of the mill exercise carried out almost by rote. And in decreasing numbers.
This was different. Not a game-changing day in the less than storied recent history of Munster but hugely welcome for all in red, on and off the field.
An official attendance of 21,133 got their money’s worth here. Munster are still alive, in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup, and having overturned the five points deficit from the first leg to finish 34-23 clear on aggregate they will take great confidence from the day because it needed to be dug out by hand.
When back rower Jacques Vermeulen got over after Exeter’s best passage of play, on 49 minutes, it brought his side back to three points behind on the day but two ahead on aggregate.
True, hardly the sort of situation you’d want to be sitting on and having a breather, but the way they worked for the score suggested Exeter could get this one done. They looked energised.
For that to happen they needed Joey Carbery to have a mini meltdown, and he was in no mood for that. How appropriate for a man whose career has been pot-holed by landmine injuries to hold his nerve and beat the tricky wind with everything he addressed off the tee. First class. And a try lobbed in for some extras in a haul of 21 points.
Man of the match Peter O’Mahony, having missed the first leg, made a difference too, starting with a turnover in the first few minutes when Exeter were trying to pick up from where they left off at home.
Quickly it developed into a contest where Exeter were all shape and not enough substance, still a shadow of the team that once ruled England and conquered Europe two seasons ago. Yet you wondered if Munster would have enough to put them away.
A week ago in Sandy Park, Munster were happy enough to be going in only 10 points down at half-time given the hillock of errors they had built, mainly around balls put down.
This was a lot tighter on that front. A lead of 13-5 suited them nicely. The irony was that it was Jack O’Donoghue, one of their best operators and leaders, who couldn’t hold two tricky passes he needed to secure.
By way of a bonus the last act of the half was a long-range penalty attempt from Sam Simmonds that was well off target.
It was like one of those interviews where the politician is told he or she has very little time to make a final point, and then fluffs their lines — a bit of a saga in this tie for Simmonds given he missed both conversions last week as well. With that went the wind advantage, a stiff one coming in over the terrace at the Mayorstone end.
When you added that to the missed conversion of Sam Maunder’s try on 11 minutes, those five points illustrated how far off the pace they were. Maunder was a constant source of go-forward for them, as was Henry Slade at centre, and the number nine did his best to create the sort of quality opportunity they needed out wide, for Munster’s defence tightened every time he touched the ball.
His try overtook an early penalty for Carbery and was impossible to stop. Rugby as a sport has a lot to examine on the safety front but that doesn’t mean other stuff doesn’t need fixing.
For example, is it credible that a defender won’t make the tackle when attacked five metres from his own line? In this case Conor Murray was the man with Hobson’s choice and Maunder was making an offer he knew couldn’t be refused.
The good news for Munster, aside from the missed conversion, was the ledger showing plus three points by the time Murray was sprung from the sin bin. Carbery’s penalty in the scrumhalf’s absence added nicely to the clock-eating policy which they managed without interference from referee Mathieu Raynal.
But the Vermeulen try early in the second half spread some panic around the ground. Suddenly 13-5 was 13-10 — yes Simmonds missed again — and it took Carbery’s two penalties to calm the nerves. The second, for 19-10 after a gift-wrapped ruck entry from Jannes Kirsten, had some tonic thrown in.
When Damian de Allende got over in the corner at the end, after a sublime inside pass from Simon Zebo, all bar the travelling fans were on their feet. They deserved the celebration and you wonder if thoughts turned to the middle distance, beyond the quarters where it will be interesting to see if there is any further movement on the Munster coaching team before the quarter-final in three weeks.
Given that Graham Rowntree brought up the prospect of Mike Prendergast as attack coach when he was interviewing for the role — it’s hard to think of a better fit than the once-Cookie now Racing man — surely the new head coach will be poking IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora in the ribs to loosen the purse strings and get that one over the line.
The concern would be over who else Nucifora would bring to the party. What Munster need, but will not get, is a Director of Rugby to sort the game out on both sides of the house — amateur and professional.
What they don’t need is for Nucifora to magic up another man who knows nothing of Munster and what’s left of their identity.
Defence coach is a vital role in the modern game but it’s easier filled than a head coach or attack coach role. Munster don’t need to go to the other side of the world to find one, do they?
Scorers - Munster: D de Allende try, Carbery try, 4 pens, 2 cons. Exeter Chiefs: S Mauder, J Vermeulen tries.
Munster: M Haley; K Earls, C Farrell, D de Allende, S Zebo; J Carbery, C Murray (11-21))C Casey 70); J Wycherley (J Loughman 55), N Scannell (D Barron 55), J Ryan (S Archer 55), J Kleyn (T Ahern 62), F Wycherley, P O’Mahony (capt) (J Jenkins 76), J O’Donoghue, J Hodnett (A Kendellen 70)
Exeter: S Hogg; O Woodburn (J Hodge 71), H Slade, I Whitton (T Gilbert-Hendrickson 76), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, S Maunder (J Maunder 58); A Hepburn (B Keast 60), J Yeandle (J Innard 60), H Williams (P Schickerling 60), J Gray, S Skinner, D Ewers (S Grondona 76), J Vermeulen, J Kirsten
Referee: M Raynal (France).