Chiefs’ European campaign underway after gutsy draw with disciplined Munster side
Dan Angel and Harry Scott-Munro report from Sandy Park as the Chiefs draw 10-10 with Munster.
A low-scoring, yet enthralling affair took place at Sandy Park took place this afternoon as Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby saw out a 10-10 draw to start their respective Heineken Cup campaigns. Aside from small passages of switching pressure, both halves seemed to mirror each other, with the Chiefs dominating the early and closing exchanges, and Munster wrestling back control in the mid-points of each half. This seemed fitting, given the evident difficulty to sustain momentum due to the exceedingly blustery conditions. In the end, a low-scoring draw was a fitting result between to evenly matched and physical teams, with a strew of handling errors and misplaced lineouts from both sides halting any fluid attacks from either side.
The first half began with Munster looking to impose themselves physically on the game with a series of hard carries from eventual Man of the Match, Tadhg Beirne and the ever-industrious CJ Stander providing an attacking platform. The Chief’s half-backs were particularly tested from early on with a series of box kicks, but the game centred on strong defence around the breakdown. Early signs seemed to show an emerging dominance in Munster’s pack, who forced the Chief’s into committing a couple of holding penalties in attack, stifling some promising line breaks from the likes of Exeter’s Henry Slade. Chiefs though, through the strength of their tight 5, hauled themselves back into the match with a series of scrum penalties. The abrasive carries of Don Armand in tandem with his back-row partner Dave Ewers looked to help Exeter finally secure a solid foothold in the match. However, as seemed to become an increasingly frustrating pattern, Exeter coughed up possession from a poor line out, something Baxter was quick to comment on post-match. Despite that, the Exeter Chiefs’ head coach preferred to focus on the positives of how the team dealt with the difficult conditions, crediting both teams on “a hard-fought draw”.
Both Steenson and Carbery exchanged penalties before a spell of sustained Chiefs pressure in Munster’s 22 finally told in the 39th minute as Luke Cowan-Dickie bundled over, after a series of strong pick and drives from the Chiefs forwards. The only notable moment of contention came when Andrew Conway appeared to lead with an elbow into Gareth Steenson following the conversion. Exeter might feel hard done by as the referee, Jerome Garces felt Conway was committed and elected to not penalise the Munster winger despite the strong appeals from the Sandy Park faithful.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first, with Munster dominating the opening phases, this time playing with the wind. Fly half Joey Carbery orchestrated his troops with the ease that has seen him become the heir apparent to Johnny Sexton’s Ireland jersey. His control and ease with which he moved the ball was a joy to watch, with captain Peter O’Mahony and former Sale Sharks fullback Mike Haley running a string of beautiful lines that at times were poised to cut the Chiefs defence wide open. Chiefs themselves though are no strangers to a long defensive set, with Munster going through 20 phases before spilling the ball near the Exeter line. This press continued as Exeter dealt with the strong breeze in their faces, before Munster thought they’d scored from a driving maul on 55 minutes, only to be pulled back by Garces for crossing. The pressure finally told however, as after a series of strong carries, CJ Stander found himself in the right place at the right time to burrow over on 64 minutes. There was a delay for a period of time as medics dealt with a nasty clash of heads between Exeter’s Dave Ewers and Sam Skinner. Ewers returned to the field having passed his HIA assessment, but both he and Skinner will be monitored in the coming days to assess their condition.
With the scores level at 10 apiece, the Sandy Park faithful rallied their team for one final push and they almost got their wish, as the otherwise impressive Carbery kicked a ball dead giving Exeter a scrum 20 metres from the line as the clock ticked past 80. After a series of strong carries and phases that went on for at least 2 minutes over time, Chiefs coughed the ball up agonisingly close to the line, when one last pick and go may have won it. With kicking conditions so difficult, a drop goal never seemed to cross the Chiefs players’ minds, as they resorted to their tried and tested close quarter phase play. The final score of 10 apiece was probably fair as both sides had their chances but we’re never fully able to maintain a stranglehold over the game.
Post-match, Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter was philosophical, admitting that whilst mistakes were made, particularly at the line out, they had at least not lost their hardest test of the season and broken a frustrating tradition of slipping up in the first round of the European competition. Speaking with the press, Henry Slade felt it was 2 points dropped but both were more than aware that there is still everything to play for, in what will be a tightly contested pool. Asked to comment on the incident between Conway and Steenson, Baxter backed the referee, feeling that pundits and supporters needed to stop looking for a “vicious collision” every time there was forceful contact on the rugby pitch. As opening games go, it was a cagey game between two strong teams who will both have designs on reaching the latter stages of the tournament.
In all, both teams will feel satisfied coming away from a first round match that pitted two of the pre-tournament contenders against each other, with Munster Coach Johann Van Graan describing the draw “as good a two points as you’ll do”. Munster next face a rejuvenated Gloucester side at home, whilst Exeter will look to maintain their unbeaten record to start the season, making the daunting trip to Top 14 champions, Castres. Baxter stressed the need to get “at least 3 more wins” out of a strong pool to have a chance of making the last 8. They’ll need to be more clinical with the ball in hand in the opponents half, whilst issues surrounding the lineout will need to be sharply addressed if they have any designs to live up to their pre-tournament billing as possible contenders.