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Reds make sure of progress

It was one of those days in Thomond Park where the crowd didn't take the opposition very seriously, so that even when the gap between the teams was modest there was no sense whatsoever that something could go so wrong as to derail Munster's progress towards the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

Half-time, for example. The home team went in leading 16-7 after 40 minutes with the stiff breeze behind them, and while territory had been shared roughly evenly, Munster had enjoyed heaps more ball in good positions than the under-strength French. And was there any concern around the ground that it hadn't yielded more? Not a bit of it.

In the end they won with a comfortable gap but an uncomfortable display. It was enough to guarantee them top spot in Pool 1, and passage into the knockouts regardless of what happens against Saints on Saturday in Stadium MK. They wanted a bonus however, not just for the strength it might give their case towards a home quarter-final, but for the boost it would have given them for the weekend. It's worth remembering Saints failure to win here in the first round, when they dismantled the full strength Munster scrum, was one of those incredible days that Tony McGahan won't be relying on to repeat itself. Whatever, their history is littered with big performances on the road -- but you suspect they'll need another one to get what they want from the last round.

The handy start last night might have had something to do with Munster's lack of urgency after their scoring start. Having defended for the first four minutes until Damien Varley won a good turnover 15 metres from his own sticks, the home team had to wait just another four minutes before scoring. The wait would have been shortened by about 60 seconds had James Coughlan opted to use either Johne Murphy or Denis Hurley outside him instead of charging from 10 metres, but Murphy touched down on almost the next play.

From a lineout move that might well work another day at the right time, the winger tore through a perfectly excavated gap in the middle of the line and once he held the ball that was that. Ronan O'Gara tapped over the conversion for a 7-0 lead and the expectation was that Munster might well be on the border of bonus country. In fact they were a long way from that point. Initially you'd say they were conservative, looking to take points offered by penalty awards rather than going straight for the big hit of seven. O'Gara knocked over a penalty on 15 minutes that could have been put in the corner, but a few minutes later some woeful defending allowed Yannick Caballero through for a try which Pierre Barnard converted.

Two more penalties from O'Gara took them through to half time and covered a period when Munster looked like they thought points would flow automatically. Some of their decision-making in the final 10 metres was plain poor, like sending one man in to clear out a tackle and thinking the ball would come back on a plate. And this was after losing Niall Ronan after just 14 minutes with what looked like a very painful wrench of his knee. You'd have thought that minus their open-side -- Donncha O'Callaghan came on in the second row with the hard-working Donnacha Ryan moving to six -- they would have been more careful.

It didn't get much better in the third quarter, which opened with a penalty from Barnard, and soon after that a binning for Thierry Lacrampe. At one point Peter O'Mahony, with the ball tucked under one arm, was run into touch with Johne Murphy offering nothing in the way of an escape route. It's questionable if O'Mahony would have responded had Murphy come to his aid.

The effect of all of this was to delay the inevitable: a Munster win; and to cast further doubt over their ability to harvest the complete haul of points. O'Gara made it 19-10 on 52 minutes, just after he had got into a scoring position under the Castres posts but couldn't finish himself, or offload because there was no support close enough.

Soon after they had a try by Conor Murray disallowed when Paul O'Connell was penalised for obstruction. None of this caused any unrest in the crowd, for the script had nothing in it about Castres causing undue trouble. The window to a bonus opened briefly when Wian du Preez barrelled his way over from close range, on 68 minutes, but it closed again just as quickly. O'Gara's conversion put Munster 26-10 ahead, and they had to make do with that.

Munster: D Hurley; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi (D Barnes 78), S Zebo; R O'Gara (I Keatley 74), C Murray (T O'Leary 66); W Du Preez (M Horan 73), D Varley (D Fogarty 73), BJ Botha (S Archer 74), D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony (B Holland 78), J Coughlan, N Ronan (D O'Callaghan 14)

Castres: R Martial; V Inigo (M Nicolas 74), P Bonnefond, PM Garcia, PG Lakafia; P Bernard, T Lacrampe (yc 55-65); S Taumoepeau (M Coetzee 55), MA Ralier (M Bonello 66), A Peikrishvili (K Wihongi 55), M Rolland (capt), R Capo Ortega, Y Caballero, J Bornman, I Diarra

Referee: A Small (England)

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