Monday 17 June 2019

Chiefs of England but Exeter Euro hopes marooned on continental shelf

Rory Scannell. Photo by Michael Sheehan/Sportsfile
Rory Scannell. Photo by Michael Sheehan/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

It's probably best to start with expectations when assessing the visit of Exeter Chiefs, recent English champions and current league leaders, to Munster tomorrow (5.30).

Asked whether a quarter-final appearance - as they have managed for 18 of the last 21 seasons - is a base minimum for the Irish province, Rory Scannell's answer was unambiguous.

'Yeah, definitely," he says sternly. "It nearly feels like the norm. You have to get out of your group."

And Exeter?

"It is a last-16 game and in any other cup competition you would be happy to be in the top 16," says director of rugby Rob Baxter ahead of a match his side must not only win to qualify, but do so by overturning a four-point gap in the table.

"If we had beaten Munster at home, we'd be two points closer but we would still have to be winning in Limerick.

"So this was always shaping up to be the pivotal game and that is what has happened."

Still, starkly divergent motivations though. And the problem for Exeter is that Munster know how to win pivotal games; Exeter don't.

As recently as last season, Munster entered this stage of the competition with two other rivals also riding the thin line between qualification and elimination.

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Like this season, they had dropped points with a draw and defeat on the road but they thumped Castres 48-3 in round six to refute any argument en route to another semi-final.

Exeter freight a similar muscle memory into the final-day showdown too; they had also lost two of their opening four games (back-to-back defeats to eventual champions) before restoring some hope with a five-pointer in their penultimate game.

But they crumbled when the final hurdle approached, succumbing supinely away to already-eliminated Glasgow.

And so, for the fourth time in five years, they failed to progress. Little wonder few give them much of a prayer in the Limerick cathedral.

Even their sole quarter-final appearance was achieved in unlikely circumstances; their win in Ospreys should have been academic, were it not for the seismic shock which saw Clermont downed by Bordeaux.

Baxter knows that last year's experience is much more relevant as they seek to upset the odds.

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"Undoubtedly, if we were to win and go through it would rank as our best moment in the Champions Cup so far," he says.

"We have won big games before home and away and been in the quarter-finals before. Last time, when we beat the Ospreys, it wasn't in our own hands, unlike this time.

"We have to force the 4-0 or 5-1 in terms of match points and that will make it even tougher. But it is tangible for us and that performance pressure creates more defining games in a team's history.

"But we have to recall moments we can learn from. We had a similar scenario last season against Glasgow, we performed well the previous week but then we didn't repeat the performance next time around.

"We haven't got guys who are running around knowing what this European Cup is like. And this is going to be a big challenge for us in Thomond Park."

For a club now established as one of the twin totems of the English game - along with Saracens, who added back-to-back European titles to their four league titles this decade - one quarter-final from six attempts is a shoddy return.

True, their rise from the second tier of English rugby, franked only in 2009 with promotion, has been truly remarkable but that is already history now; their journey since, especially in Europe, has been one of stark under-achievement.

A team without stardust have strived to aim for the stars - yet they have always fallen short.

What has suited them in the Premiership, grounding predominantly weaker packs into submission, has not cut it at the higher level, as the likes of Leinster, Toulon and Clermont have been able to demonstrate.

Patience and resilience is key in Europe; Munster, historically, possess oceans of experience in this regard. Exeter talk a good game in Europe but have rarely walked it.

"As a team we used last week's game as a kind of knock-out game," says England international Jack Nowell, "where we knew we had to win, and it will be the same against Munster. It's make or break for us now, so we've just got to go out and attack it as best we can."

Irish Independent

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