Off-colour Munster edge Exeter in tense battle as Joey Carbery's flawless kicking books quarter-final spot
Munster 9 Exeter Chiefs 7
MUNSTER edged their way nervously into the quarter-final of the Champions Cup with three penalties from Joey Carbery guaranteeing them an 18th last eight appearance in 21 seasons.
They will more than likely be on the road next time around; after a performance riddled with a variety of errors, perhaps the absence of whatever pressure that strangely burdened them here today might release them.
Trailing for more than hour after Don Armand scored the game's only try in the 13th minute, Carbery's third penalty with just seven minutes left aptly lifted Munster out of their fog as the mists rolled into Thomond Park.
Exeter brought brutality and some beauty in attack and they may regret spurning numerous kicks at goal; Munster's efforts almost paled in comparison at times and their display was most jarring in comparison to the heights of the past month.
Carbery was not alone in suffering; Conor Murray also had an indifferent afternoon as Johann van Gran's men failed to demonstrate any composure or cohesion; they never imposed themselves on the game in any regard.
The bottom line, though, is that they are through; Exeter are not and yet another English side has flattered to deceive in Europe.
They exited not without some stirring defiance though.
Exeter threatened to silence the crowd from the kick-off but their early carries were undone by an impatient cross-kick from Joe Simmonds.
Munster would soon test the visitors' patience under the high ball and a hat-trick of early spillages reflected initial aerial dominance.
Soon they were scenting blood; they'd take the shirt off your back for a Heineken Cup win in these parts.
CJ Stander offered a literal illustration; whipping off Jonny Hill's jersey in frustration at the Englishman's illegal presence at an early maul.
Referee Jerome Garces shared the South African's opinion and, after spurning a shot at posts in order to create that maul, Munster opted for discretion when offered their second penalty.
Joey Carbery booted his 18th successive place-kick to give his side a seventh minute lead that ought to have settled them.
Instead, Exeter's maul did and the impression of the game suddenly skewed.
After Niall Scannell's penalty concession on the floor some 40 metres out, Joe Simmonds punted his forwards to within five metres of the goal-line; his forwards returned the favour by crossing it, Don Armand credited with the 13th minute opener.
Simmonds, who had a poor day from the tee last week, slotted a superb conversion from wide on the left to silence the 26,267 crowd and put his side 7-3 ahead.
In an increasingly claustrophobic affair, space was at a premium. The English side did threaten in the open field but only because they filled their back-line and mopped up a series of loose Munster kicks.
Munster's big statements were in defence, a scrum penalty against the head which allowed Carbery to cut the gap to 7-6 in the 23rd minute and a trademark Tadhg Beirne turnover in the half-hour; his fist pump produced a roar from the crowd that would not have embarrassed a try-scorer.
A crooked throw undid another Exeter attempt to pounce from a maul; almost 90% of the play was taking place between the 22s but the visitors seemed more coherent; Munster were quite the opposite, frantic and lacking focus in attack.
No better evidence of this arrived in the final moments of the first-half when Munster should have ended the half when in possession in quite unpromising circumstances.
Yet they played on and allowed Exeter another attempted maul close in; ironically, none of Simmond's three subsequent kicks to touch had been harder than the one which had prompted his team's try.
And so Munster escaped again, scampering towards indoor sanctuary to surely re-jig their tactics and re-jog their muscle memory of being a dominant, imposing presence in their fortress.
A return to more direct carrying in the forwards and improved line-speed helped matters although their kicking game remained far too loose given Jack Nowell's prowess.
Exeter dominated the opening ten minutes but couldn't penetrate the 22; Munster struggled to exit their own half.
Even when they did, referee Jerome Garces ruled against Beirne for an offside while charging down Nic White; it was the wrong decision.
Munster were making enough of their own as their passing faltered under pressure; Exeter remained the smoother in possession and they needed the blue-helmeted Beirne to save them on more than one occasion.
This was Exeter doing to Munster in Thomond what the home side usually do to all-comers. Even Murray was poor in possession and his premature removal perhaps indicated growing impatience in the coaching box.
Dan Goggin arrived on the hour and he made a timely intervention as Munster produced their best phase of attack all afternoon.
It would bring them to the brink of the try-line for the first time all day but somehow Exeter managed to conjure an escape.
Beirne hyper-extended a knee but rose to hyper-extend his arm to secure a defensive line-up as Exeter reverted to their earlier territorial dominance. Beirne wouldn't last the next minute.
But his replacement, Billy Holland, made an immediate involvement, plucking an Exeter throw from the dour night sky as the visitors threatened the score that might eliminate the two-time champions.
Instead, Carbery's late penalty would release Munster from the gloom. The win they wanted with a performance they didn't.
Enough to get them a quarter-final but a repeat of this display may not be enough to earn a third successive semi-final.
Munster - M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin 58), K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray (A Mathewson 65); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman 67), N Scannell (R Marshall 74), J Ryan (S Archer 56), J Kleyn, T Beirne (B Holland 67), P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (A Botha HT), CJ Stander.
Exeter - J Nowell; S Cordero, H Slade, O Devoto (I Whitten 58), T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn (B Moon 54), J Yeandle (capt), H Williams (G Holmes 68), D Dennis (M Lees 51), J Hill, S Skinner, D Armand, M Kvesic.
Referee – Jerome Garces (France)