‘We feel we’re still in next week at home’

Johann van Graan boasted Munster’s last-ditch defend at Exeter Chiefs that leaves the English club defend a narrow five-point lead for next week’s second leg of this European knockout tie.

Munster, missing seven internationals though injury and illness, escaped Sandy Park with a 13-8 defeat in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 first leg in a contest that will be decided on the aggregate score at the end of next Saturday’s second leg at Thomond Park.

Exeter had taken a 10-0 lead into the half-time break after tries from Stuart Hogg on six minutes and a 38th-minute score from Jacques Vermeulen that followed quickly on from a Shane Daly yellow card.

Munster hit back with a Ben Healy penalty and when the Chiefs lost both wing Olly Woodburn and replacement prop Patrick Schickerling to yellow cards within a minute of each other on the hour, Daly atoned for his own card with an excellent finish.

Munster were unable to take further advantage of the 15 v 13 power play, though, and Craig Casey was denied a try with no clear evidence of the ball being grounded.

Hogg returned a Healy goal-line kick out with a long-range drop goal to take the score to 13-8 and it needed some brilliant defensive involvements from Conor Murray and Keith Earls to deny the home side before a crucial collective tryline rearguard to keep Exeter out at the death after they had turned down the chance of kicking for the posts from a scrum penalty.

“We knew that the scrum penalty and then the advantage they got, we needed to keep them out because a seven-point swing there might be massive in the context of next week,” van Graan said.

“It’s fascinating to be part of a two-leg knock-out. In terms of the research we’ve done, you can’t win it in the first leg, but you can certainly lose it in the first leg and we feel we ‘re still in next week at home. We’ve got to beat Exeter by six points at Thomond Park.”

The Munster boss rued an error-strewn first half and added: “We’ll go back and learn from this, so will Exeter. Two clubs that respect each other.

“A lot of small margins in the game. We needed to be accurate for 80 minutes, we weren’t accurate enough in the first 40 today. Then it’s going to come down to who uses that one opportunity that they get which might swing it .”

The Munster coach is also optimistic that a number of big name stars will be back for the crucial second leg in Thomond Park on Easter Saturday

He said: “Hopefully we’ll have Joey Carbery back. We hope to have him back in training on Monday. Hopefully we’ll get some good news on Peter O’Mahony.

“We had quite a bit of sickness in the week, but it was literally just the next man in. Simon Zebo, we gave him to this morning. He didn’t actually travel across. We were going to get him on a flight this morning but he couldn’t recover.

“And then this morning Diarmuid Barron went down as well. We had a few guys down during the week, but no excuses. Very proud of the guys that stood up.”

Meanwhile Exeter rugby director Rob Baxter wants his players to “go for it” in Thomond Park.

“We created a lot of opportunities that we didn’t take, but at the same time we probably put together some fantastic play,” Baxter said.

“That 10 minutes when we were down to 13 men was probably one of our best 10 minutes of the season.

“The whole game, the whole situation, could have flipped then. We were under some pressure. For us to deal with that 10 minutes like we did, I think it showed a great deal of character and something that could really drive our season from here on in. That was a very good performance All the hard work and the processes were there.

“If you perform like that, nine times out of 10, you win the game, and we’ve won the game. I am actually pretty comfortable with where we are. We have just got to go for it next week and be as good as we were today.”

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