It’s a testament to how handy a result this draw on the road was that nobody, except maybe me right now, has spoken about how it was like “kissing your sister” in the aftermath.
I don’t have a sister, so maybe that sister kissing analogy makes sense to somebody somewhere but when you break down this result and its meaning in the grand scheme of this pool, there’s very little for Munster to be unhappy about with two points gained on the road in Sandy Park.
The Golden Rules in the claustrophobic environs of a Heineken Cup pool are as follows;
Golden Rule #1: Thou Must Win Your Home Games If Thou Wants To Progress To The Playoffs.
Golden Rule #2: Any Points Thou Can Purloin On The Road Are Invaluable, Especially If Those Points Prevent The Opposition From Fulfilling Golden Rule #1.
By preventing Exeter from winning their first home game, Munster have put the Chiefs under immense pressure against Castres next week and increased the win or bust nature of the Chiefs remaining home games as long as Munster can beat Gloucester next week in Thomond Park. Essentially, these hard-won two points have set off a chain reaction of cutthroat, claustrophobic games for Exeter that may well lead to a dark and stormy date in January at the House of Pain on the Cratloe Road.
A Heineken Cup pool is like having a sledgehammer fight in the back of a taxi. You can’t get finished in the first swing but you can set up a chain of events that makes the final blow easier to land. That isn’t to say that winning wouldn’t have been a whole lot better and certainly achievable when you watch the game back. There were opportunities to go after, yes, but the conditions and the refereeing environment dictated a lot of how this game would have to be managed. A greasy surface plus a massive wind multiplied by a wild west breakdown meant that much of this game was played between the 15m lines with little in the way of respite. This was an old-fashioned slugfest and, while ultimately, we know that a draw isn’t as good as a win – real cutting edge punditry here, I know – we also know that in these circumstances, It’ll Certainly Do™.
The biggest factor in this game wasn’t any of the players in red or blue – although Tadhg Beirne came close – it was Storm Callum (which, incidentally, sounds like the kind of name Gweneth Paltrow would call a child). The remnants of that Atlantic storm meant that this game was played out in two different sets of conditions depending on what end you were playing in. When Munster opted to play into the breeze – almost a comic understatement to call it that – in the first half, this became a game of Beat My Score. Whoever had the wind would have an easier job clearing their lines, getting distance on penalties and have an elementally boosted territorial game. Whoever didn’t would have to hang onto the ball and prevent the opposition from using the wind to turn every turnover into an 80m plus territory loss. Having the wind made scoring easier and defending harder so when you had it, you’d better put up a score that the opposition would struggle to match when they had it.
Maybe that’s why no one in red was too gutted to go in at halftime only 10-3 down. That score wasn’t just fluked though, it was based on a gritty, endlessly physical display that attacked Exeter at key points in their gameplan. I spoke pre-game about the importance of disrupting the Chiefs’ breakdown and lineout if Munster were to have any chance in this game and that’s exactly what Munster did in the first half. If Munster allowed Exeter to retain possession as they usually do, it would give Gareth Steenson all the invitation he needed to drive Exeter deep into Munster territory where the wind would make it almost impossible to exit and thus we’d hand a lineout platform to the Chiefs, something they have become quite good at taking.
Munster would need to disrupt their key areas of play and then retain the ball for long periods. In that regard, we were quite successful.
That disruption of Exeter’s possession lead to good periods of Munster possession that, at the very least, prevented the Chiefs from getting into their primary game when they had the wind advantage at home when they would be expected to press the result.
There were spurned chances inside the 22 – spills in possession the main culprit – but only being down a score at halftime will have been an acceptable, even if the late concession of that try will rankle.
In the second half, Munster faced a similar challenge as Exeter did – breaking down an opposition that was OK hanging onto the ball without going anywhere. In a lot of ways, this is Exeter’s game. With a 7 point lead, they would be comfortable enough playing their phase game to burn the clock and Munster’s patience. At one point, Exeter burned through 12 phases while barely making 20 metres of territory but for them, territory didn’t matter. They knew that with a seven-point lead, a greasy ball and that wind, Munster would have to score narrow if we were going to score at all and to do that, we needed the ball. Enter Mr Beirne again.
Could Munster win this game through the narrow exchanges? We certainly had a go. Cloete had a try chalked off for obstruction but there’s an argument to be made that the Chiefs’ scrumhalf’s bind kept the maul going and, as a result, there was no obstruction.
But the referee was unsighted, as was the assistant, so this is fair enough in my view. Munster would eventually score off the back of a powerful maul drive and close in series of carries.
It was hard-won. Like everything else in this claustrophobic encounter, there was nothing easy. When passing the ball further than 5m was a lottery – the wind was blowing even short range passes off course – this became a game of heavy leather hammer ball. Did Munster spurn opportunities? Sure. We took a little too much out of this one, for example;
The offload was a nice idea but the execution wasn’t where it needed to be on either pass or support line.
Did we live on the edge in the last 60 seconds? Absolutely. But, like the rest of the game, our defence was solid, aggressive and organised enough to repel the Chiefs. The final whistle told a story – Munster were elated, Exeter less so. Both sides knew the significance of not winning at home and drawing on the road.
Munster know all to well that small things on the road lead to big things in January and it’s a testament to Exeter’s growing nous that they seemed to recognise that too. Munster will consider what might have been – as will I on TRK Premium this week – but what “is” isn’t bad at all.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating given the way the game went.
Tadhg Beirne was borderline unplayable here. He stole lineout ball, he carried, he won turnovers and turnover penalties, he built maul platforms, he carried all day long – look, this guy is a stud. We knew he was good at the Scarlets but seeing him perform week to week is something else entirely. He was absolutely outstanding here in the loose, in the tight and could probably do a decent job of flying the plane back to Shannon. He’s that good. A special, special player playing the kind of rugby that earns green jerseys when they play black ones.
And what about Duncan Williams? This guy takes about as much abuse as any Munster player I can remember and still he pulls out performances like this one when it matters most. His work in this game was mostly excellent – great kicking, decent passing in the circumstances and good decision making on the whole – but one moment earned him his first FIVE STAR performance.
If Williams doesn’t track back and make this tackle, Exeter take a 17-3 lead and Munster are left with 20 minutes and a mountain to climb to even get back into losing bonus point territory.
In the context of the game and even the pool, this was a colossal moment from Duncan Williams to track the linebreak and then make three tackles in close succession to force the turnover. That’s the kind of moment that pays out in January and if that was the only thing he did in this game, it’d nearly be worth those five stars but it wasn’t. He managed the first half excellently in despicable conditions and put us where we needed to be.
We’ll have to back this result up next week against Gloucester for the benefit of these two points to truly be felt but as starts go, I’d have taken two points off you like a dog eats chips off the floor five minutes before kickoff.
God, I love the Heineken Cup.
I’ll be covering all the details of this game in detail on TRK Premium during the week.