Munster to host Toulon in mouthwatering quarter-final after crushing Castres
MUNSTER 48 CASTRES 3
Munster will host three-time winners Toulon in the quarter-final of the European Champions Cup thanks to this comfortable bonus-point win over Castres.
The result keeps the Reds on the opposite side of the draw from their old rivals Leinster and means they’ll travel to France for their semi-final against Clermont or Racing 92 if they can overcome Ma’a Nonu and Co on Easter weekend.
Leinster will host Saracens in the quarter-final and if they can overcome the champions they’ll either host Scarlets or be away to La Rochelle in the semi-final depending on the outcome of that last eight clash.
They put this one to bed reasonably early, overcoming a three-hour delay to kick-off due to the effects of a miserable Limerick day on the Thomond Park surface and a sluggish start to score six tries to nil and top Pool 4.
At the end of a difficult 10 days as the organisation came under huge scrutiny for the signing of South African drugs-cheat Gerbrandt Grobler, there was a release around the Limerick venue as the rugby took centre stage and the fans had plenty to sing about.
Their scrum was utterly dominant, while their carrying style and superior foot-work meant they were able to negate the French side’s superior size.
The only black spot was the first-half injury that forced Dave Kilcoyne off which instantly makes him a doubt for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against France in less than two weeks’ time.
In truth, the contest didn’t last long. The delay to the kick-off meant Castres’ slim chance of progressing had already gone due to Racing’s narrow win in Leicester.
Having waited three hours for kick-off, Munster started slowly and had to endure some early Castres pressure as both teams adjusted to the strong wind that whipped across Thomond Park.
Rory Kockott put the French side ahead after 13 minutes after Jean Kleyn’s tap on Antoine Tichit’s head saw the penalty the Castres prop had conceded reversed.
In a tighter game, the error in judgement might have cost the South African but it faded to memory pretty quickly as Munster assumed full control of the game and their quarter-final destiny.
Ian Keatley levelled matters after a series of strong carries started by Rory Scannell, CJ Stander and Chris Cloete, before edging his side in front after referee Ben Whitehouse bizarrely pulled Conor Murray back after the scrum-half had tapped the penalty and kicked away.
Castres could feel aggrieved for that one, but their consistent infringing under Munster pressure ultimately saw them lose Thomas Combezou to the sin-bin as the home side stepped up the ante.
Munster went for the scrum from the subsequent penalty and when Whitehouse awarded a free-kick, Murray tapped and found Keatley who fed Simon Zebo and he showed brilliant awareness to release Keith Earls up the wing and the Moyross man wouldn’t be stopped.
Keatley converted from the touchline and Munster’s 13-3 half-time lead might have been furthered had Murray backed himself when put into space by Chris Farrell, only to pass to Andrew Conway who knocked on under pressure from Kockott. Only Murray knows why he didn’t hang on to it with nothing in front of him.
Their maul made up for it within five minutes of the restart as Rhys Marshall touched down at the back of a powerful effort.
Again, Keatley converted and another scrum penalty afforded Rory Scannell another chance to put the pressure on through the lineout.
This time Cloete peeled around the front and took the ball to the line, but the French defence held up a subsequent effort over the line. They went again and, while Earls thought he’d bagged a second, the referee called them back for a forward pass but was playing advantage and Munster had a penalty.
They went again, but Murray knocked on in the act of scoring.
A scrum penalty saw Daniel Kotze sent to the sin-bin less than two minutes after coming on and again they went for the scrum and eventually forced a penalty try.
That meant Munster were in a stick or twist situation between drawing La Rochelle or Toulon in the quarter-final, depending on the bonus point but the players played as if it didn’t matter and pressed on for the fourth score.
They didn’t have to wait long as Keith Earls split the Castres defence and fed Zebo who spun through the final tackle to score.
Alex Wootton added a fifth as the teams played out a game long finished as a contest and James Cronin put the icing on the cake with a last-gasp maul try and JJ Hanrahan converted to bring proceedings to a close
MUNSTER - S Zebo; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls (A Wootton 63); I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 66), C Murray (D Williams 69); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 18), R Marshall (N Scannell 49), S Archer (J Ryan 43); J Kleyn, B Holland (D O’Shea 53); P O'Mahony (capt), C Cloete (J O’Donoghue 66), CJ Stander.
CASTRES - G Palis; K Jaminet, T Combezou, R Ebersohn (capt), D Smith; J Dumora, R Kockott (Y Domenech 72); A Tichit (T Stroe 46), J Jenneker (K Firmin 46), D Tussac (D Kotze 54) (, A Bias, T Lassalle (V Moreaux 46); Y Caballero, S Mafi, A Tulou (D Tussac 57-67) (B Delaporte 67).
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales)