A losing bonus point might represent a good result for Munster against the unbeaten Devon club.
JOHANN VAN GRAAN doesn’t shirk digging deep into the video archives now and then, but he didn’t need to burrow down far through Exeter’s showreel to see their potency in action ahead of today’s Heineken Champions Cup pool opener in Sandy Park (kick-off 3.15pm, BT Sport).
Last Friday night, Exeter were in full battle mode away to Bath. In earlier stages of the season they had almost toyed with opponents, passing up all kickable penalties in favour of backing their line-out and maul to strike from 5-10 metres.
At the Rec, they eased that policy and Gareth Steenson kicked two penalties when the game was in the balance. Yet, once they sensed blood, the Chiefs pack was slipped back into that vicious all-or-nothing mindset and duly recorded their sixth straight win – the fifth with a bonus point.
Van Graan likens the Chiefs to the Beauden Barret-led Wellington Hurricanes before he reels off the run of play between minute 64 and 70 last Friday. He might as well be listing Exeter’s strengths.
“The score was pretty tight against Bath and then they went for a scrum. (They) got a penalty, went to the corner flag, kept the ball, scored a try, received the kick-off, actually turned the ball over, lost it, got the ball back and Jack Nowell scored a fantastic 90-metre try. So that is the danger of them.”
That about sums it up: Ian Whitten’s tackle 10 metres out from his own try-line (reminiscent, as it happens, of the odd penalty awarded against Sam Arnold at the Aviva before Keith Earls could run clear) set Henry Slade on a powerful breakaway. The talented centre was caught, yet showed excellent fight on the ground and flung the recycled ball to keep danger alive. From there, the Chiefs went wide, taking advantage of tired defenders to put Nowell over for the visitors’ fifth try on the night.
They’re all action, these boys.
The continued absence of Conor Murray and his pin-point box-kicking will assuredly be felt by Munster in Sandy Park, where Rob Baxter’s side continually revel in kicking pressure onto their guests down in Devon.
“I think they know their own ground very well,” says Van Graan with a knowing nod, “the more you look at them, they play pretty differently when they play with the wind and when they play against the wind.
“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, that’s what they are good at.”
“So their maul, their set-piece – I just looked at them over the weekend, they know what they’re all about. There was one point in it between themselves and Bath with 20 minutes to go and they punished them with any type of mistake (24-39 by full-time).
“They’re a championship side and that’s why it’s the Champions Cup.”
The 2017 Premiership champions are weakened by the loss of Sam Simmonds and lock Jonny Hill, but with Matt Kvesic’s breakdown threat, Slade and Whitten’s excellent midfield combination and the superb variety delivered by Steenson in the number 10 shirt, the Chiefs remain formidable all across the field.
Munster’s kicking and exits will be crucial to succeeding in taking anything from Sandy Park with Nowell, Phil Dollman and Santiago Cordero waiting in the back-field.
Munster have their own arsenal to worry the Chiefs, of course. Joey Carbery wasn’t able to extend his promising half-back partnership with Alby Mathewson, but having faced down the All Blacks in Chicago and England in Twickenham, the Athy man won’t shirk the added responsibility here.
Neil Cronin has returned from injury to make the bench, deputising for Duncan Williams who has the faith of Van Graan.
“Duncan’s been there on multiple occasions, a very experienced nine,” says Van Graan.
“That’s the beauty of sport: you can’t plan for these things and if they happen the next guy in has got to take his opportunity and who knows what might happen.”
The South African has placed great faith too in academy product Dan Goggin, the Limerick man’s marvelous form and physical presence has earned him a starting role in the biggest match of his career so far. The selection of Rory Scannell inside him gives Munster a valuable extra playmaking and kicking option. Additional help on that front will come from Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Mike Haley.
That back three carries an electric attacking potential, particularly if Munster’s numerous turnover specialists – Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Cloete and CJ Stander – can make a steal and offer up an opportunity to counter.
From set-piece to breakdown, defensive intensity to kicking subtly, it’s going to be quite a battle in Devon.
One thing is for sure:
“If you want a result out of there or even a point out of there, you have to be at your best,” says Van Graan.
“That is what we will have to be over the weekend. I say it again: it is a great challenge and one we are looking forward to so much.”
15. Phil Dollman
14. Jack Nowell
13. Henry Slade
12. Ian Whitten
11. Santiago Cordero
10. Gareth Steenson (captain)
9. Stuart Townsend
1. Ben Moon
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Harry Williams
4. Dave Dennis
5. Sam Skinner
6. Dave Ewers
7. Don Armand
8. Matt Kvesic.
16. Jack Yeandle
17. Alec Hepburn
18. Tomas Francis
19. Ollie Atkins
20. Tom Lawday
21. Jack Maunder
22. Joe Simmonds
23. Sam Hill.
15. Mike Haley
14. Andrew Conway
13. Dan Goggin
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. Joey Carbery
9. Duncan Williams
1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Niall Scannell
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Chris Cloete
8. CJ Stander.
16. Rhys Marshall
17. James Cronin
18. John Ryan
19. Billy Holland
20. Tommy O’Donnell
21. Neil Cronin
22. JJ Hanrahan
23. Sammy Arnold.
Referee: Jérome Garcès (France)
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud