Exeter will take a narrow lead to Limerick next weekend after edging out Munster 13-8 in a tense Heineken Champions Cup round-of-16 clash at Sandy Park.
The Chiefs looked on their way to a sizeable victory after first-half tries by full-back Stuart Hogg and flanker Jacques Vermeulen put them 10 points clear.
But injury-hit Munster rallied after Exeter were reduced to 13 men for a quarter of the second period when wing Olly Woodburn and replacement prop Patrick Schickerling received yellow cards in rapid succession.
Wing Shane Daly touched down for Munster, while fly-half Ben Healy kicked a penalty, but it was Hogg’s drop-goal from 45 meters out that could ultimately make a significant difference.
Exeter, looking to win the European Cup for a second time in three seasons, will feel they should have put the game away before indiscipline hit them.
But Munster, twice European champions, displayed trademark grit and resilience to set up an intriguing second leg at Thomond Park.
Exeter were without injured England internationals Jack Nowell, Ollie Devoto, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill, but welcomed back center Henry Slade, prop Harry Williams and number eight Sam Simmonds to the starting line-up.
Munster’s injury troubles saw skipper Peter O’Mahony and fly-half Joey Carbery sidelined, with Simon Zebo, Tadhg Beirne and Gavin Coombes also out, testing resources ahead of the team’s first European Cup meeting since 2019.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell was among the crowd, and he saw Munster immediately on the back-foot as Exeter hit them with a brilliant sixth-minute try.
Slade was prominent, but it was wing Tom O’Flaherty’s decisive angle of attack that unlocked Munster’s defense, and Hogg sprinted over to give the Chiefs a dream start.
Exeter continued to dominate in terms of possession and territory, and they almost claimed a second try midway through the half when skipper Jack Yeandle almost burrowed his way over.
The home side continued pressing, yet they had no further reward as a combination of poor handling and vigorous Munster tackling denied them a healthier advantage.
But Exeter were finally rewarded two minutes before the interval as they made a temporary one-man advantage count.
Munster replaced Jack O’Sullivan, who replaced number eight Alex Kendellen, was yellow-carded following a technical infringement, and Vermeulen crashed over from close range for the Chiefs’ second try.
Simmonds missed the conversion, yet the 2020 European champions were full value for their lead, having dominated most areas.
Exeter’s relentless approach continued immediately after the break, and it was all hands to the pump for Munster in defence, while their scrum came under increasing pressure.
But the Chiefs were also their own enemies, conceding penalties in threatening positions and letting Munster off the hook.
And with Munster’s Ireland international scrum-half Conor Murray a growing influence, the visitors opened their account through a Healy penalty after 57 minutes.
They were the only points of a tight third quarter, with Exeter then losing Woodburn, who was yellow-carded following an arm to the head of a Munster player, and Schickerling following foul play near his own line.
Exeter responded to that double setback superbly, though, when Hogg dropped a goal – the first of his career – from just inside Munster’s half and restored a 10-point gap.
But it did not last long, as Munster broke upfield and Daly made the most of Exeter’s numerical disadvantage to touch down with 12 minutes left.
Exeter defended magnificently with Woodburn and Schickerling off, and they almost added a third try during the dying seconds, but Woodburn knocked on after making a clean break.