Exeter Chiefs 13 Munster 8
A SECOND-HALF Shane Daly try gave Munster a real foothold in the first leg of their arm-wrestle of a last-16 Heineken Champions Cup tie at Sandy Park on Saturday.
Missing Tadhg Beirne, Gavin Coombes, David Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony, Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo and Diarmuid Barron, what already looked a difficult assignment took on almost impossible proportions, as Munster travelled to arguably the most intimidating venue in English rugby minus almost their entire leadership group.
Exeter were quick off the mark with an excellent Stuart Hogg try in the right corner in the 7th minute after Ian Whitten and Tom O’Flaherty carved open the Munster midfield after the home side had run a quick free-kick won at a lineout around halfway.
Munster were at sixes and sevens early on, getting completely beaten up at the breakdown, at ruck time and in the scrums, as they struggled to gain any type of grip in the tie.
The Exeter ferocity continued to dominate proceedings and they looked as though they were about to score in the 24th minute when Jack Yeandle was reaching for the whitewash, only for Munster scrum-half Conor Murray to somehow flick the ball out of the hooker’s hands to force a crucial knock-on.
Munster’s injury woes continued when young number eight Alex Kendellen failed a HIA after picking up a knock in the 28th minute, as he was replaced by Jack O’Sullivan.
The French referee penalised Munster nine times inside the opening 36 minutes and he finally lost patience, yellow carding O’Sullivan due to persistent team infringements, and two minutes later the Exeter pack took full advantage, with openside Jacques Vermeulen burrowing over from close range to give the home side a 10-0 half time lead. To be only ten points in arrears at the break almost seemed a result given Exeter’s dominance.
Exeter had multiple attacking opportunities inside the Munster 22, but thankfully from a Munster perspective, their accuracy was off, which was surprising given that Exeter pride themselves on their ability to turn 22 entries into points.
Munster’s first real attack of note came in the 55th minute when they finally got some possession within Exeter’s 22 and when they were awarded a penalty they were happy to take the three points, with out-half Ben Healy nailing the simple kick in front of the posts in the 57th minute.
Two minutes later and it was looking better for Munster when Exeter winger Olly Woodburn was shown a yellow card for making contact with the head of Niall Scannell when attempting a clear out, and just a minute later replacement prop Patrick Schickerling joined him when binned for cynical play, but Munster quickly conceded two penalties and were pushed back almost the length of the pitch.
And then, out of nothing, Stuart Hogg lit up proceedings with a monster drop goal from halfway, which split the Munster posts to restore Exeter’s 10-point lead.
A huge moment occurred in the 67th minute when Exeter centre Henry Slade went for an intercept but failed to gather, and when Keith Earls picked up the loose ball Munster had an overlap down the left and when Chris Farrell fed Shane Daly he had the wheels to get home for what could prove a crucial score in this two-legged tie.
Craig Casey thought he was over for the lead try in the 70th minute but he was just short and afterwards Munster piled the pressure on Exeter but could not find a way over, as their one-out rugby couldn’t puncture the necessary hole.
Exeter had survived and looked to capitalise when Woodburn seemed destined to run in a try in the right corner in the 77th minute only for Keith Earls to deny him with a sublime diving try-saving tackle.