Thursday 19 September 2019

Tony Ward: 'Castres do homework as ugly approach gets under Munster's skin'

Familiarity breeds contempt for pool rivals but at least Van Graan's men - and other Irish provinces - still have decent shot at knockouts

Close encounter: Rory Scannell gets away from a foot tackle to score a try for Munster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Close encounter: Rory Scannell gets away from a foot tackle to score a try for Munster. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

When the Champions Cup draw was made and fixtures released back in the summer, the promise of a return of seven points out of a possible eight from back-to-back December fixtures would have been more than acceptable for Munster. And yet…

The perfect eight could - and probably should - have been completed at Stade Pierre-Fabre on Saturday.

Proof that familiarity breeds contempt could be found in Munster against Castres, whether in deepest France or on the north side of Limerick.

And if they are to be drawn together in the same pool going forward, can we plead with the organisers to have this fixture and its rematch first and last in the group, and at least three months apart.

What we got was a fascinating encounter. It was ultra competitive as we expected it would be, but it was also downright ugly with an undercurrent of nastiness. Credit Wayne Barnes at least for not losing control.

Munster set out to match fire with fire as is their wont but there were far fewer sinners wearing red than white.

I can't imagine what it's like being a season ticket-holder at Castres if this is the fortnightly ration of entertainment - win or no win. Top 14 champions in 2018 - a remarkable achievement - but for all their energy at the breakdown and commitment to the set-piece whatever is the polar opposite to 'easy on the eye' they (and Toulon) are it.

To be fair, it was better than what they brought to the Thomond Park table the week before. They fractured the Munster set-piece on Saturday, both scrum and more particularly lineout.

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It is the nature of the seven-day turnaround when analysts do their thing that a different challenge emerges entirely.

On the basis of the one-point win and difficulty for Munster out of touch, the Castres backroom staff did theirs better. And yet for all that Munster could still have won.

They did, as Johann van Graan suggested, have the match-winning opportunities. Quite whether they deserved to come away from this with a winning return I'm not so sure. Regularly we laud Munster in securing the losing bonus but on this occasion even that feeling was a little flat.

In individual terms, Dave Kilcoyne and CJ Stander laid down the early marker of physical intent. Stander got even better as the game progressed and in the final analysis was second only to the outstanding Tadhg Beirne as the leading Munster light on an ugly afternoon of attritional rugby.

I am not a Rory Kockott fan but there's no doubt when he's at the base of the Castres scrum things happen. He paved the way for the game's only try but if ever there was a loose cannon wearing nine he is it. The fact that he managed to get through to the normally unflappable Conor Murray tells its own tale.

Joey Carbery also had a game that's best forgotten. He is still a way short of the type of game management essential if Munster is to succeed in winning matches of consequence later in the season.

But I would urge Van Graan and his coaching staff to be strong. Consistency in selection at ten is essential for Carbery, particularly at this point in time.

Nor was it one of Peter O'Mahony's better games. The lineout malfunctioning was and is a collective problem, however. And, when I see the captain, in what was a pressure cauldron, exhibit a rush of blood then you know there to be grounds for concern.

Specifically, I am referring to him kicking a stolen lineout ball to touch (just metres from the original) when his role was simply to control possession and set the platform for Murray to make the kicking exit he does better than anyone.

It was out of character but a little insight into a Munster mindset that was being rattled by Castres' tactics at the time and ultimately on the day.

Leinster, by contrast, won pulling up as expected. The lessons from Bath were always set to be put right and, in specific terms, Adam Byrne, Rory O'Loughlin and Jack Conan made their individual points to the collective good.

The lesson of starting without a natural eight at the Rec has been learned and will not be repeated.

If Conan is to be challenged by Max Deegan and Caelan Doris then so be it but playing three flankers is a luxury even the reigning champions, for all their vast resources, can ill afford. Byrne is still a serious contender beyond Jordan Larmour for the right wing slot when Rob Kearney is unavailable in the last line.

While O'Loughlin looked what he was in his time at St Michael's - a very real footballing presence but with that essential oomph that former schoolmate Noel Reid unfortunately lacks. O'Loughlin is probably paying the price for versatility in that so many of his opportunities for Leinster have been on the wing in bigger matches.

It wasn't that he did anything exceptional against Bath at the Aviva but from a Leinster perspective he looked comfortable in the more restrictive inside centre role alongside Garry Ringrose.

Chickens

We'll not count too many chickens just yet but this might have been the most telling statement of all in a timely Leinster warning to the rest of Europe.

Beyond that, convincing wins for Ulster and Connacht sees us set up nicely for the festive interpros. And whereas in times past we bitched (with good reason) at various team selections, this time round there will be a real sense of purpose to what the four provincial coaches are about in terms of individual and unit combinations beyond the international elite.

The bottom line sees all four sides in with a decent shout of European knockout qualification. It sees much done but with still a lot to do. The interprovincial series could scarcely be better timed.

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