Maybe those two-legged knockout ties will catch on. The suspense of a tight, tense and relentlessly physical competition dragged on into the final minutes in Limerick as it remained impossible to call a winner; at least until Damian de Allende’s try, eight minutes from the end, which delivered the final blow. Munster emerge beaten but victorious from a high-class collision between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, and with a last-eight game against Ulster or Toulouse looming on the horizon.
Munster and Ireland fly-half Joey Carbery scored 21 of their 26 points, but it was basically a defensive masterclass from Johann van Graan’s side and one that evoked memories of the good old days when they won this competition twice in three seasons between 2006 and 2008. It was notably a gigantic individual display from Peter O’Mahony in the back row, the captain who refused to give Exeter time to s ‘install to breakdown and caused a nuisance when lining them up over the market.
Exeter huffed and huffed but, as so often this season, failed to find the edge needed to decisively end resistance from determined opponents. They can still make the Premiership playoffs, but it will take a remarkable recovery – and a rediscovery of that old killer instinct – for this campaign to count as anything other than a hopeless disappointment.
It all started quite brightly for Rob Baxter’s side, too, who went into the second leg with a five-point lead after the first leg at Sandy Park. The visitors spent much of the first quarter with the ball in hand, at times trying to break through Munster’s red brick wall, at other times watching the quick hands and dancing feet of Sam Maunder and Henry Slade for a touch of magic.
The Devonians crossed the try line early thanks to a fine marksmanship finish from Maunder which also resulted in a yellow card for Murray. But if anything, Exeter failed to take full advantage of their prime territory, which was largely down to committed and smart work during the breakdown of O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue and the rest of the Munster team.
O’Mahony, going from that fierce competition at the breakdown to a temporary scrum-half after 25 minutes, made a fine pass towards Carbery who easily passed Harry Williams, the prop, and ran Munster’s first try point blank. The extras were added by Carbery and the seven-pointer gave Munster the lead for the first time. Joe Simmonds struck a long-range penalty with the final kick of the first half, and it was abundantly clear that a nervous second half awaited in Limerick. The Irish province had produced no less than seven turnovers in the first half, conceding just three penalties, and the problem of the turnover was one that Rob Baxter would have solved urgently at half-time.
The second half began to play out in much the same vein as the first: Exeter in possession, making contact, the ranks of Munster defenders dutifully lining up to absorb another impact. But things tipped in the visitors’ favor when Jacques Vermeulen went over eight minutes after half-time. Simmonds sent the conversion against the post, and Carbery showed no such waste with a few penalties that pushed Munster back into the lead as the crowd wanted them.
Munster pressed Exeter in the last 10 minutes. After Slade narrowly failed to pull off a brilliant interception, a scruffy pass made its way to Simon Zebo on the left wing, but the quality of the delivery didn’t matter. The Ireland international scorched the outside before delivering a world-class offload inside to De Allende, who performed a demonstrative dive over the line to send the home fans into ecstasy.
“Dogged” was the word O’Mahony used to describe Munster’s performance. Yet another thing he was right.