Wednesday 20 February 2019

Exeter know history is against them in Munster - but then they’ve made a habit of turning that on its head

Jack Nowell of the Exeter Chiefs celebrates during his team’s victory against Castres and they will now battle Munster for top spot. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Jack Nowell of the Exeter Chiefs celebrates during his team’s victory against Castres and they will now battle Munster for top spot. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.

Sam Peters

There have been many great days in Exeter Chiefs’ recent history but none would be greater than denying Munster a bonus point in Limerick on Saturday to ensure the most unlikely knockout qualification in European Champions Cup history.

Before we get carried away, let’s begin with a few healthy dollops of reality.

Here are the facts:

  • Exeter have never won a Champions Cup game in Ireland.
  • No side has ever qualified for the knockout stages of the competition after failing to secure a win in their opening three games.
  • Munster have qualified for the knockout stages in 18 of the past 21 Champions Cup competitions. Exeter have qualified once in the club’s history.
  • Exeter, whose back-to-back bonus point wins over Gloucester and Castres have salvaged what looked for all the world to be a dead campaign, have never one three Champions Cup games in a row.
  • Munster have won their last 11 European games at Thomond Park. They’ve only lost five European games there in their history.
  • In fly-half Joey Carbery and lock Tadgh Beirne, Munster possess two of the competition’s stand out performers.

“So you’re telling me there’s a chance,” Jim Carrey’s character proclaimed in Dumb and Dumber, when told by his crush that his hopes of securing her affections with her were “closer to one in a million”.

Exeter’s odds of winning are slightly shorter than one in a million – somewhere around 9/4 against according to most bookmakers around lunchtime on Friday in fact – but history unquestionably is against them.

But the joy of sport, and the undeniable fact about Rob Baxter’s Exeter team since they first burst rudely onto English rugby’s Premiership scene by beating Gloucester on their first outing in 2010, is that they have made a habit of turning history on its head.

Two-time winners Munster have all the European pedigree you could wish for and rightly start Saturday’s game as firm favourites to qualify but such has been Exeter’s story over the past decade, it would be madness to write them off completely before kick-off at Thomond Park.

Last week’s dominant bonus-point display win over Castres finally saw Chiefs hit their straps after a relatively frustrating season which sees them sit on top of the Gallagher Premiership table without ever really finding their mojo.

Their European campaign has stuttered with the opening draw at home to Munster followed by defeats by Castres and Gloucester which appeared for all the world to have ended any realistic hopes of qualifying.

But the victories over Gloucester and Castres in the return fixtures have breathed new life into their campaign and they travel to Limerick knowing yet more history is theirs to be made.

"It is going to be a fantastic test for us, and great to see which players want to stand up and fight,” Baxter said after his side’s win over Castres left them with their destiny in their own hands. Win and deny Munster a bonus point in the process and they are through. Simple really.

The return of two of their youngest and brightest stars to the starting line-up against Castres made all the difference.

Fly-half Joe Simmonds has endured a tricky first half to the season following his breakthrough year last year after slipping back behind veteran Gareth Steenson in the pecking order. But he returned to the starting line up at fly-half against Castres and provided the added spark which has been absent from so much of Chiefs play this season.

Simmonds’ fly-half duel with Owen Farrell was much-hyped before Chiefs lost to Saracens in last season’s Premiership final but the incumbent England No 10 handed his junior a rugby education. He has the chance against the lavishly gifted Carbery to prove he has the big-match temperament required to make the step up to international rugby. Simmonds can be sure he will be the focus of much attention on Saturday.

Jack Nowell, closing in on cult status at Sandy Park at the tender age of 25, scored a memorable try from full-back on his comeback from injury against Castres and will again be pivotal to Exeter’s hopes of delivering a shock on Saturday.

Nowell’s outstanding breakdown work, which prompted England coach Eddie Jones to mischievously describe him as an option at No 7, does add a different dimension to Exeter’s play with his ability to turnover ball in wide channels.

But it’s his quick feet and ability to create space in close quarters which are his principle asset and Chiefs will need the British and Irish Lion to be at his razor-sharp best to claim an unlikely victory in Limerick.

Physically, Chiefs will need to be at their absolute best. Backed by a sold-out and unashamedly partisan Thomond Park crowd, few teams in world rugby can deliver the level of intensity Munster routinely bring to big European Cup occasions.

It should be brutal, engrossing and everything we want from a Champions Cup encounter. Munster are overwhelming favourites to go through. History and common sense are on their side.

But Exeter have made it their business to rewrite history in recent times. They won’t be going down without a fight. It couldn’t be their greatest day yet, could it?

Teams

Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Rhys Marshall, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Arno Botha, Alby Mathewson, Tyler Bleyendaal, Dan Goggin.

Exeter Chiefs: Jack Nowell; Santiago Cordero, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto, Tom O'Flaherty; Joe Simmonds, Nic White; Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle, Harry Williams; Dave Dennis, Jonny Hill; Sam Skinner, Don Armand, Matt Kvesic.

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ben Moon, Greg Holmes, Mitch Lees, Sean Lonsdale, Jack Maunder, Gareth Steenson, Ian Whitten.

Independent News Service

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