Mun­ster show­down awaits Ex­eter after bonus-point glory

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Champions Cup - Mick Cleary RUGBY UNION COR­RE­SPON­DENT at Sandy Park

Still alive, still in with a slug­ger’s chance, Ex­eter Chiefs did all that they could to nur­ture their faint hopes of qual­i­fy­ing for the knock­out stages, se­cur­ing the bonus­point win that leaves them with a straight­for­ward task at Thomond Park on Satur­day – beat Mun­ster, deny­ing them a bonus point in the process and they are through to the quar­ter-fi­nals.

It is easy to ar­tic­u­late – a vic­tory would leave them level on group points with the Ir­ish side, but with a bet­ter pool record be­tween the two this sea­son – but darn dif­fi­cult to bring about, given that Mun­ster have won their past 11 Euro­pean ties at that cher­ished back­drop and have only ever been beaten four times at home in the his­tory of the Euro­pean Cup.

It is one last shot, one last op­por­tu­nity, a knock­out tie in all but name. The odds are against the Chiefs, es­pe­cially with two days fewer to rest and pre­pare, but to judge from this dis­play, the force is back with them.

And if the likes of Jack Now­ell, play­ing his first game in two months due to a ham­string in­jury, shows the fire and dev­il­ment he did against the Top 14 cham­pi­ons, then any­thing is pos­si­ble. Good news for Eng­land on that front, too. The 25-year-old set the tone with his busy, bounc­ing car­ries right from the first whis­tle, beat­ing men and cre­at­ing tempo, a live-wire pres­ence, a trig­ger to Chiefs’ multi-faceted at­tack. And to think that he had come into the match with a tight ham­string.

There was men­ace and trick­ery all over the field from the Chiefs, be it the en­ergy of prop Alec Hep­burn, the roam­ing in­stincts of lock Jonny Hill or the ma­gi­cian’s of­fload­ing of cen­tre Ol­lie Devoto, all of which con­trib­uted to Ex­eter’s im­pres­sive win against a Cas­tres team who fought back after a slack open­ing with some snarling, de­fi­ant play of their own.

The French side made their op­po­nents fight for the good­ies on of­fer, even if their feisti­ness did spill over into a 59th-minute red card for re­place­ment prop Tu­dor Stroe for a swing­ing arm to the head of Devoto in a ruck.

It is all Ex­eter wanted – a crack at redemp­tion, an op­por­tu­nity to show that they can trans­fer the clout and class they show on the do­mes­tic stage to the big­ger, more chal­leng­ing and more sig­nif­i­cant cross-bor­der arena.

“We have been wait­ing for this game to come and we have given our­selves what we wanted – some­thing to play for in the last match,” said Ex­eter Chiefs’ di­rec­tor of rugby, Rob Bax­ter.

“We can gen­uinely talk this week about go­ing and test­ing our­selves in one of Europe’s iconic venues against one of Europe’s iconic teams, in as close to a knock­out as we could get.

“We have got to make sure we are emo­tion­ally recharged for Thomond Park. We have to try to make the game about us and not about Mun­ster.”

But, he added: “The sched­ul­ing [the dif­fer­ence in turn­around times] is strange. It needs look­ing at. “You’d think they would have worked out a bet­ter way, but we won’t dwell on it.

“As for Jack, play­ing at 15 gave him more free­dom to at­tack, to get his hands on the ball. It doesn’t mat­ter what num­ber is on his back. We might keep him there.”

The vic­tory gave much-needed cred­i­bil­ity to the cause of the English clubs, too, who were fight­ing a vir­tual wipe-out be­fore the fi­nal round had been played.

That said, it is still likely that, for the sec­ond year in suc­ces­sion, Sara­cens will be the lone stan­dard bearer for the Premier­ship in the knock­out phases. Ex­eter, at least, have raged against the dy­ing light.

There was cer­tainly no need to hold a ref­er­en­dum in Devon about stay­ing in Europe, ev­ery man, woman and child was right be­hind their push to re­main in the Cham­pi­ons Cup. How­ever, for a club of their pedi­gree, Europe has been a dis­ap­point­ment for the Chiefs with only one quar­ter-fi­nal ap­pear­ance (2016) in five at­tempts.

This was a day to try to re­draft that ledger and Now­ell was a real as­set. He was in the thick of the ac­tion, weav­ing and step­ping his way to the try-line in the third minute from 45 me­tres out.

Fly-half Joe Sim­monds was next to score, the ben­e­fi­ciary of won­der­ful sleight of hand from Devoto. Then lock-for­ward Hill stretched over for the third on the half-hour with Now­ell again fea­tur­ing.

Ex­eter were well aware that they needed to keep that mo­men­tum go­ing in the sec­ond half and not al­low Cas­tres easy scores as they had done when con­ced­ing a firsthalf try to Tay­lor Paris.

The ap­pear­ance of fiery scrumhalf Rory Kock­ott did bring more bite to Cas­tres’ play, yield­ing a try for Thomas Combe­zou, but Chiefs were more than equal to it all.

Wing Tom O’fla­herty scored the all-im­por­tant bonus-point try just four min­utes into the sec­ond half, with Henry Slade and Luke Cowandickie also touch­ing down.

Ex­eter know that they will need all the clev­er­ness and en­thu­si­asm they brought to this en­counter if they are to pre­vail this week­end. It may be mis­sion im­prob­a­ble in Mun­ster, but the Chiefs are still in the ball game.

Ju­bi­lant scenes: Tom O’fla­herty cel­e­brates with Jack Now­ell after scor­ing Ex­eter’s bonus-point try

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