Munster 19 Castres 13
Last Sunday’s one-off minor miracle in Coventry was always going to be a hard act to follow, all the more so against a Castres team that love making a game into a scrappy arm wrestle.
In the heel of the hunt, Munster are still dusting off the cobwebs from their enforced seven-week hiatus and the fall-out from their Covid affected trek to South Africa. For example, while the other three senior coaches could be seen conducting the warm-up, forwards coach Graham Rowntree was seemingly absent again here.
Munster had a plan. They attacked the blind side, and went wide-wide when they could. Their kicking game was at times very inventive, but they struggled to execute some of the basics such as their launch plays and couldn’t build any sustained pressure.
But they had enough set-piece supremacy and quality – not least in midfield where the free-running, in-form Damian de Allende gave the whole gamut of his World Cup-winning skills. Tadhg Beirne also continued where he left off in the Autumn Series and last week. It’s perhaps no coincidence that aside from being brilliant rugby players, these two are probably Munster’s most match-hardened players.
After the game, while happy to have accumulated nine points from their opening two Champions Cup matches from the most unpromising circumstances, Johann van Graan admitted it wasn’t the prettiest.
“It was an ugly win, not great on the eye. It’s not the performance we wanted but we just spoke in the dressing-room that some players came back this week and some will be coming back next week. So I’m very happy with the nine points but we can certainly perform better.”
The Castres president, Pierre Yves Revol, had said his club did not want to travel for the game – maintaining the Covid situation was the same in Ireland as in the UK. To their credit though, their multi-national squad – drawn from eight different countries – weren’t of a mind to roll over and have their bellies tickled.
Physical and confrontational up front, they employed effective line speed in defence and couldn’t be shaken off.
As he does, referee Matthew Carley was also an over-bearing influence, as evidenced by his 13-12 penalty count in Munster’s favour.
Although Thomond Park certainly wasn’t full to the rafters, the last sizeable Saturday crowd for some time were in full voice from before the off, giving their heroes the customary ovation on their slow jog back to the dressing-room from their warm-up. The end would be much more muted.
They were baying to make their influence tell but were largely becalmed by a stodgy stop-start first-half which altogether better suited to, well, a stodgy Castres who like stop-start games.
It could have been worse for Munster, de Allende’s tip-on pass almost giving Bastien Guillemin an intercept and free run from halfway, but the winger fumbled.
Instead, there was a nice tip-on by Jean Kleyn (something beyond his skillset when he first arrived) to Beirne. The enormous Castres tighthead Wilfred Hounkpatin didn’t roll away and Ben Healy, in his first Euro start, thumped over the 45 metre penalty.
Munster couldn’t build any sustained pressure. Conor Murray looked sharp and flung some long passes, hitting Farrell with a flat skip pass off a nice launch play, but his offload didn’t go to hand. Healy’s inside pass to Keith Earls off another was read like an open book by Benjamin Urdapilleta and Simon Meka, lock Theo Hannoyer latching over an unresourced ruck.
Finally Munster reached both edges after the first quarter, but Murray’s grubber was covered by Hounkpatin to relieve the pressure valve.
Earls’ vision on the counter eventually broke the game open. His crossfield kick pass was gathered by Conway, who chipped ahead and Beirne’s brilliance in the jackal enabled Healy to make it 6-0.
A clean lineout steal by Jack O’Donoghue saw Farrell run diagonally and time his pass perfectly for Patrick Campbell, who had the awareness and skill to execute a 50/22. Playing with an advantage, de Allende was held up just short when straightening onto Healy’s cleverly delayed pass. A few phases later, de Allende tried again from Murray’s long pass, but the TMO Ian Tempest adjudged there had been ‘separation’ as the ball went from de Allende’s right hand to his left via Santiago Arate.
It didn’t look obvious.
There was only minor consolation in a third Healy penalty, but Urdapilleta made it 9-3 at the break after Beirne had been pinged for not releasing.
The crowd contented themselves by singing along to The Cranberries’ Zombie during the interval, after which Thomas Larregain was wide from almost halfway before Guillemin again fumbled an intercept try from halfway when Healy left a long pass by Earls.
Castres had replaced their frontrow at half-time, and substitute tighthead Antoine Guillamon was penalised for dropping to his knees at his first scrum. “Give him a red card,” offered one wag in the crowd. Munster needed something indeed, but Healy’s penalty from halfway was just wide.
Farrell overplayed his hand once more, but despite a couple more inexact handling moves, de Allende scooped up loose ball to make something out of nothing with a barnstorming run, his offload and another by Earls to Stephen Archer keeping the move alive.
A quick recycle wide and a deftly delayed pass by O’Mahony then gave O’Donoghue a narrow touchline corridor to work with, but he withstood a double hit by Kevin Kornath and Larregain to somehow touch down one-handed inches from the corner flag.
This time, after another interminable delay, Carley and Tempest finally awarded O’Donoghue his first European try, and Healy landed a magnificent conversion from the right touchline.
Munster went for the jugular rather than an orthodox exit, but Healy’s chip eluded Conway. Despite an alert piece of covering and a touch-finder by de Allende, Urdapilleta landed his second penalty.
But another pinpoint Murray box kick and well-timed chase and tackle by Conway earned an attacking penalty and again Munster went for the jugular. But they didn’t get their lineout set-up and instead settled for another Healy three-pointer.
With that, the young guns, Jack O’Sullivan, Craig Casey and Jack Crowley were given the last 10, and now the game opened up.
Castres were immediately given a brief lifeline when O’Mahony missed the wobbly flight of the restart and Antoine Zeghdar latched onto the ball, but Beirne won a clean turnover and hoofed clear, Crowley also finding grass further downfield before Earls linked with de Allende on the counter but Conway’s grubber went out on the full.
Castres were now swinging from the hip too, Louis le Brun’s no look pass out the back from Urdipaletta’s kick pass leading to a penalty into the corner. A tap penalty then led to the industrious Kornath swivelling and muscling over.
Two minutes to go and a one-score game. The crowd hummed and hushed, all the more so when Beirne tried to transfer a lineout take to Jack O’Sullivan, but he spilled it.
Beirne almost pulled off one more turnover before, bizarrely, Urdapilleta kicked the ball dead inside his own 10 metre line to settle for their second losing bonus point. That perhaps summed up either their lack of ambition, or lack of interest, or maybe pragmatism.
An anti-climactic end to an anti-climactic night.
Scoring sequence: 8 mins Healy pen 3-0; 29 mins Healy pen 6-0; 35 mins Healy pen 9-0; 40 mins Urdapilleta pen 9-3; (half-time 9-3); 58 mins O’Donoghue try, Healy con 16-3; 53 mins Urdipaletta pen 16-6; 70 mins Healy pen 19-6; 78 mins Kornath try, Urdipaletta con 19-13.
Munster: Patrick Campbell; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Ben Healy, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), John Hodnett, Jack O’Donoghue.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron for Scannell, Josh Wycherley for Kilcoyne, Keynan Knox for Ryan (all 53 mins), Jason Jenkins for Kleyn (63 mins), Jack O’Sullivan for O’Donoghue, Craig Casey for Murray, Jack Crowley for Healy (all 70 mins), Alex Kendellen for Hodnett (72 mins).
Castres: Thomas Larregain; Bastien Guillemin, Thomas Combezou, Pierre Aguillon, Filipo Nakosi; Benjamin Urdapilleta, Santiago Arate; Wayan de Benedittis, Gaetan Barlot, Wilfred Hounkpatin, Loic Jacquet (capt), Theo Hannoyer, Nick Champion de Crespigny, Simon Meka, Kevin Kornath.
Replacements: Brice Humbert for Barlot, Julius Nostadt for de Benedittis, Antoine Guillamon for Hiunkpatin (all half-time); Jack Whetton for Hannoyer, Rory Kockott for Arate (both 50 mins), Mateaki Kafatolou for de Crspigny, Antoine Zeghdar for Nakosi (both 66 mins), Louis le Brun for Guillemin (70 mins).
Referee: Matthew Carley (England).