Friday 23 August 2019

Reds need to play long game and leave with something to build on

Duncan Williams partners Joey Carbery at half-back for Munster this afternoon.
Duncan Williams partners Joey Carbery at half-back for Munster this afternoon.

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

There must be part of Munster that is relishing the journey to Sandy Park this afternoon. Against an English opponent, they are being largely written off despite the fact that they were semi-finalists in this competition last season and have far more European pedigree than their hosts.

Peter O'Mahony's dressing-room address writes itself.

Yet there is good reason for the travelling contingent to be concerned. Exeter's Heineken Champions Cup record is nothing to write home about, but anyone who watched their battles with Leinster last season would respect them as a team.

Rob Baxter's side have established themselves as the only real rivals to Saracens in England, playing a pragmatic and highly effective game-plan designed to suffocate opponents and it works.

If Munster were travelling with either of their top two scrum-halves, the confidence levels would be higher but the absence of injured pair Conor Murray and Alby Mathewson is a major issue for Johann van Graan.

Duncan Williams partners Joey Carbery at half-back having been relegated to fourth or fifth choice earlier in the season. He has responded well in the past and Munster need him to do the same again.

Up front, it is set up for a real battle between well-matched packs. Munster's forward unit has not looked this impressive since Paul O'Connell retired and with Niall Scannell back to knit the whole thing together, there is a real sense that they could disrupt their hosts who have lost a couple of key bodies up front.

Chris Cloete will be key against the twin-threats of Don Armand and Matt Kvesic and if they can edge the breakdown battle they will have a chance.

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Lessons Although O'Mahony notably said last season that he was sick of learning lessons, the evidence was there last week that Munster are still making the same mistakes that let them down at the sharp end of the tournament.

Discipline is the big one at Sandy Park. Exeter thrive on turning penalties into points. Composure in attack is another, too often the Reds cough up possession at pivotal moments.

Van Graan has picked Mike Haley at full-back and Dan Goggin in midfield, while Williams replaces Mathewson and Cloete comes in for Tommy O'Donnell. Haley's positional play will be key, as will Goggin's physical presence up against former Ireland international Ian Whitten. Van Graan is very aware of the opposition's strengths.

"They've got a pretty good D (defence), I thought our second-half performance against them in the pre-season, I thought we attacked pretty well. We changed it up a bit at half-time and changed one or two things," he said.

"They don't give you lineout, they don't really kick the ball out especially with that wind. One of their strong points is that they know exactly how to play on that field and not a lot of teams go and actually win.

"I've spoken a lot about their attack but their kicking game they pin you in your '22 and wait for you to make a mistake and they keep the ball until you either concede a penalty or concede a try. We've got a certain strength that we showed over the weekend that we want to use and certain parts of our game are ever-evolving. It's a fascinating tussle, a team that we respect a lot."

Years of succeeding in this tournament has thought Munster the value of a losing bonus point over the course of a pool campaign. Gaining one and limiting Exeter to four would be a very good result as the visitors play the long game.

Verdict: Exeter

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