'With the game on the line, Billy Holland snatched the ball clean out of the Limerick night air'

'With the game on the line, Billy Holland snatched the ball clean out of the Limerick night air'
Billy Holland of Munster steals an Exeter lineout from Sam Skinner. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

THEY left Thomond Park battered, bruised and feeling like they’d gone the full 12 rounds with prime Mike Tyson. 

That was just the crowd in attendance. God only knows what the players are feeling like. 

Munster’s 9-7 win over Exeter was probably one of the most physical games I’ve ever seen in Thomond Park or anywhere else outside the test arena. This was hand to hand combat. This was trench warfare. This was a sledgehammer fight in a phone booth. 

This was classic European rugby played out in one of its classic arenas. 

This was two sides going at each other in a pure, uncomplicated way.

Munster's Billy Holland celebrates after the game with the choir and Jean Kleyn. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Munster's Billy Holland celebrates after the game with the choir and Jean Kleyn. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Plenty was said about emotional energy in the build-up to this game and it showed up as expected.  Sometimes I think the technical side of the games gets a little too much emphasis. 

In this game, whoever had their guts right would get the job done in the end.  Getting your emotional energy right heading onto the field is one of the most important things in the game, even at the professional level. 

Actually, it might even be more important at pro-level. You can have all your technical basics and gameplan down to a tee but if you're not ready to live and die for that jersey and your 22 friends when you walk past that white line, you'll usually lose to a team that is.

If you don't know what it's like, it can be hard to understand that mentality. 

To some, it can sound cartoonish, or of a bygone time. I can promise you that it isn't. 

Sure, pre-match isn't 100% tubthumping anymore but in the modern game, the need for emotional readiness is a key part of the game. 

The very best sides in the world peak technically, mentally, physically and emotionally ahead of big games, almost on command, and anyone wanting to be spoken about in the same circles has to be able to do the same. 

It's not enough to have three of the four. It has to be all of them.

The Chiefs, a pack of big, heavy men, bossed possession for most of the game and almost carried Munster to a standstill. That in itself would be fine except that After a sloppy penalty conceded at a breakdown, Exeter went down the line and mauled over for their only score of the game. 

That tendency - kicking every penalty down the line - was classic Exeter but their try was the only time it breached the Munster line. 

We spoke before the game about how Munster needed to avoid giving Exeter any kind of lineout platform deep in the 22 because that’s usually a position that they score from. 

That, in a lot of ways, was the story of the game. Exeter with the ball, Munster repelling them. Outside of close range mauls, Exeter never really looked like troubling Munster’s centre-field defence. 

Munster's Peter O'Mahony tackles Matt Kvesic. Picture: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
Munster's Peter O'Mahony tackles Matt Kvesic. Picture: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

The likes of Armand, Hill, Dennis, Skinner and Hepburn racked up a tonne of carries but when you look at their collective work - 77 carries collective carries for just 81m gained - you can get a picture of how this game went. Exeter had 64% possession and 65% territory but never looked to threaten Munster’s defensive integrity when they weren’t mauling from close range.

As a game to watch, it was highly unusual in this regard. 

Munster weren’t being overly stressed by Exeter’s patterns but still struggled to gain back possession for long periods. Beirne and O’Mahony did their part with crucial breakdown turnovers but Munster struggled to get the ball back in their hands for long stretches. 

It looked a little like Exeter were trying to run the clock down after their try in a lot of ways. 

White took an age on every drop kick, Exeter’s forwards carried the ball in tight clusters and their backs seemed content to traverse over and back across the field for minimal gains. 

They kicked smartly but never really looked like scoring outside of their try, bar one incident which all but turned the game in Munster’s favour.

Munster had lost Beirne to an ankle injury and in came Billy Holland to defend a 5m lineout drive. This was where the Chiefs were supremely dangerous. 

A try here would have killed the game off for Munster bar a miracle, and it was just the position that they had scored from way back in the 14th minute. With the game on the line, Billy Holland rose at the tail of the lineout and snatched the ball clean out of the Limerick night air. 

It was a colossal moment in Munster’s season and, a few minutes later, Munster would finally take the lead in the second half through the faultless boot of Joey Carbery. The Southern province squeezed out the result from there. 

The Chiefs racked up another basket of phases but, once again, it never looked like an attacking sequence that would trouble Munster. The Chiefs were heading backwards on every phase and, without a lead to defend, they just looked out of ideas. 

Onto the quarter-finals for the 18th time, away to Edinburgh.

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