Perhaps these two-legged knockout ties will catch on. The suspense of a tight, tense and relentlessly physical contest was prolonged into the final minutes in Limerick when it remained impossible to call a winner; at least until Damian de Allende’s try, eight minutes from time, that proved the knockout blow. Munster emerge battered but victorious from a high-class collision between unstoppable force and immovable object, and with a last-eight match against either Ulster or Toulouse looming into view.
Joey Carbery, the Munster and Ireland fly-half, scored 21 of their 26 points but this was fundamentally a defensive masterclass by 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 in particular a mammoth individual display by Peter O’Mahony in the back row, the captain who refused to allow Exeter time to settle at the breakdown and caused a nuisance at their lineout into the bargain.
Exeter huffed and puffed but, as so often this season, failed to find the necessary cutting edge to decisively end the resistance of determined opponents. They may 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 desperate disappointment.
It had all began brightly enough for Rob Baxter’s side, too, who went into this second leg with a five-point lead following the first leg at Sandy Park. The visitors spent much of the first quarter with ball in hand, sometimes attempting to run through Munster’s red-brick wall, at other times looking to the fast 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 sniping finish by Maunder which also prompted a yellow card for Murray. But if anything, Exeter failed to fully capitalise on their early territory, which was due in no small part to committed and clever work at the breakdown by O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue and the rest of the Munster side.
O’Mahony, switching from that fierce competition at the breakdown to temporary scrum-half after 25 minutes, fizzed a fine pass in the direction of Carbery who easily jinked past Harry Williams, the prop, and ran in Munster’s first try from close range. The extras were added by Carbery and the seven-pointer put Munster ahead in the tie for the first time. Joe Simmonds thumped a long-range penalty wide 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 achieved no fewer than seven turnovers in the first half, conceding just three penalties, and the turnover issue was one Rob Baxter would have addressed urgently at half-time.
The second half began to unfold in much the same vein as the first: Exeter in possession, smashing into contact, the ranks of Munster defenders lining up dutifully to absorb another impact. But matters swung in the visitors’ favour when Jacques Vermeulen powered over eight minutes after half-time. Simmonds sent the conversion against the post, and Carbery showed no such wastefulness with a couple of penalties that edged Munster back into the lead as the crowd willed them on.
Munster were squeezing Exeter into the final 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 did not matter. The Ireland international scorched down the outside before offering 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 got right.