Munster can capitalise on Castres arrogance
GIVEN the history between the sides, Munster's current period of transition, Castres' steady improvement over the past few seasons, and the south of France setting, this Heineken Cup clash in Toulouse was always going to be a massive challenge for Tony McGahan's side.
The sides have met 10 times in the competition and Munster have won seven of those encounters, the most famous being the 2002 semi-final in Beziers, but Castres fancy this one -- even to the point where they believe they can rest some of their front-liners ahead of next weekend's Top 14 clash away to Toulon and a home meeting with Clermont the week after.
Whether it is based on arrogance or apathy, this Castres team selection should be a motivating factor for Munster (as should Scarlets' shock bonus-point victory over Northampton last night). The Castres bench is packed with regular first-teamers, players of the calibre of Michael Coetzee, Luc Ducalcon, Rodrigo Capo-Ortega and Pierre-Gilles Lakafia -- and the most significant name of the eight is diminutive scrum-half/full-back Romain Teulet.
He is their match-winner, the man with the Neil Jenkins-esque dependability when it comes to turning pressure into points, and not starting Teulet suggests Castres feel they do not need their go-to kicker to beat what they obviously believe to be a fading Munster force.
The Castres coach Laurent Travers may be thinking back to a couple of seasons ago when his unheralded Montauban side came within a Movember hair of stunning Munster on nerve-ridden night in Thomond Park.
He could well have looked at a Munster team-sheet containing names like Danny Barnes, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Johne Murphy and felt he did not need to start his big guns -- particularly with 'home' advantage.
The Stade Ernest Wallon setting is key to the outcome. Castres should make money on the tie as the corporate facilities are said to be booked out, but locals are predicting a crowd of around 14,000 in Toulouse's 18,754-capacity stadium.
Furthermore, the Castres fans are not happy at being asked to travel away from their small but intimidating Stade Pierre-Antoine home. Many supporters are staying away and those that are making the trip are doing so begrudgingly, with Travers and the Castres owners getting both barrels in the local media and on the message boards.
Castres and Toulouse are major rugby rivals, and playing at the Ernest Wallon is the equivalent of Munster playing at the RDS or at a more parochial level, Young Munster playing a home match in Cork Constitution's Temple Hill home.
These are all factors Munster can use to their advantage and while it is still undoubtedly a big ask, it would have been a far sterner challenge had it not been for their 41-phase endgame against Northampton last weekend. It may have been skin of the teeth stuff for Ronan O'Gara's winning drop goal but, following on from last season's pool exit, losing their first match, in what would have only been their second Heineken Cup defeat in Thomond Park, would have represented a crippling psychological blow heading to France.
Winning does not paper over the cracks exposed by Northampton -- where Munster were dominated in the scrum and struggled to match their opponent's backline fluency -- but this is a seriously good Saints side and Castres, particularly with this selection, are not at the same level.
Munster have opted to stick with the same XV, which is unfortunate for Denis Leamy, who has been in fine form since the World Cup and was a crucial figure in Munster's escape to victory last weekend.
Starting Leamy at blindside and switching O'Mahony to the openside flank was an option, but Niall Ronan holds on at No 7, with the only change to the 23 seeing Marcus Horan come back in for John Ryan on the bench.
It means two powerful benches (Munster have five Grand Slam winners on theirs) that are undoubtedly going to be plundered in the second half.
While there has to be an element of pragmatism to Munster's approach, based around secure set-pieces and a territory game, they would do well to tap into the rich seam of form being enjoyed by Doug Howlett, who was sensational last weekend.
The 2009 win in Perpignan is the away-day template Munster should follow today and if they get in Castres faces early on, the French could become petulant which, with Wayne Barnes on the while, could play into the visitors' hands and help to turn the disgruntled home support on their own.
Castres made a strong start to the Top 14 but lost their last two league matches going into Europe and are on a run of three defeats, having lost to the Scarlets in Llanelli last weekend.
You feel they would have been better served going all out for victory today rather than keeping their powder dry for next week, and Paul O'Connell and his men should seek to punish Castres complacency.
CASTRES -- F Denos; M Evans, P Bonnefond, P Garcia, M Andreu; P Bernard, T Lacrampe; A Peikrishvili, B Mach, K Wihongi; S Murray, I Tekori; J Bornman, Y Caballero, C Masoe (capt). Reps: M Bonello, M Coetzee, L Ducalcon, M Rolland, R Capo Ortega, R Teulet, R Tales, P Lakafia
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, B Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: D Fogarty, M Horan, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, D Leamy, T O'Leary, I Keatley, W Chambers
REF -- W Barnes (England)
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