Uninspiring Munster narrowly avoid catastrophic defeat to Castres and earn valuable draw
Castres 17 Munster 17
What could have been a catastrophic Champions Cup opening for Munster – Castres had not one, but two chances to win this in the dying moments – ended with a share of the spoils but this could hardly be called a great escape.
Ian Keatley had his own chance to snatch it much earlier, but a distance kick from inside his own half was pulled wide; in fairness, two poor sides on the day cancelled each other out but, given Castres' lack of interest in this competition, Munster's wound will cut deeper.
Sloppy in execution of mind and deed all day, Munster perhaps should have lost this after giving the home side the energy to do so from the opening minutes, before repeating the folly in the final ten.
Between times, they showed glimpses of form but rarely any cohesion.
Trailing by four at the break, Munster somehow worked themselves into a decent, winning position in the third quarter but they were simply unable to exert the typical pressure play that has served them well in Europe through the years, especially on foreboding foreign fields.
A first draw in 17 years in Europe will not derail their campaign but, as Castres are not one of the three sides vying for qualification, it could yet be severely damaging; Leinster did qualify for the knock-outs last term after drawing here so there is no doubt Munster can bounce back.
It was a calamitous opening for the visitors, enduring an emotionally fraught venture in France a year on from their visit here was abandoned after the tragic death of Anthony Foley in Paris.
Conor Murray was binned with just five minutes gone for hauling back flanker Yannick Caballero when a try seemed certain after Benjamin Urdapilleta's clever grubber down the left wing; again this weekend, a penalty try did not follow, luckily for Munster.
A crucial Chris Farrell intercept prevented another potential score in a frantic first ten minutes when Munster looked utterly out of sorts.
Munster were offered the chance to alleviate the early pressure when the first penalty concession from Castres gave them their first meaningful visit into the opposition half, the perfect opportunity to grind through the gears and wind down the clock.
They were doing so, bullishly through Stephen Archer and Dave Kilcoyne in particular and, although lacking some sense of shape, there even seemed to be the faintest chance of a gallop on the edges for the wide men should they so dare.
The main thing was that they may have been down a man, but they weren't down points. That comfort didn't linger for long.
Castres' midfield line were offensive in defence though, and when Chris Farrell, not for the last time in the afternoon, chose to wildly elaborate, his wide and wild pass, intended for Mark Flanagan, was picked off with facile ease by Robert Ebersohn.
His 12th minute dash beneath the posts – Keith Earls chased defiantly – ensured the seven-point punishment for Murray's indiscretion.
When Murray returned, Munster had another chance to ease their burden but an appalling lineout mishap ceded the pressure once more; with a scrum penalty on their books and their maul struggling to gain any momentum, the visitors were treading water.
They needed a spark and, as Castres began to kick loosely, backed by a strong gale beneath cloudless skies and Munster's record try-scorer, Simon Zebo, delivered it on the half-hour.
He initially countered from his 10-metre line and carried his team with him; benefiting from much more clinical ground work, Munster eked out another penalty; albeit Maama Vaipulu seemed to be harshly done by as he seemed to support his body weight.
Flanagan was sought from touch for the first time and, as Munster worked the phases patiently in-field, Zebo attempted to run one great line and was thwarted; he wouldn't be a second time as he barged over from unstoppable, close range. Tyler Bleyendaal notched inevitable extras.
Now would Munster settle?
The disappointing answer took merely three minutes to unfold and, ironically, stemmed from a Castres error, when they over-throw a lineout on their 22 which Munster should have been able to clear comfortably.
However, Rory Scannell mis-judged a looping clearance into the wind and afford Taylor Paris all the time and momentum to run back and set up a Castres' foray; first, Vaipulu and Rodrigo Capo Ortega combined sweetly to send Julien Dumura through a gap.
In fairness, Scannell scrambled well to scrag but the defence was now porous; Castres re-set more efficiently and Kockott released journeyman full-back Dumura in for the easiest of scores; 14-7 and the pocket of Munster of supporters had more reason to sweat beneath the blistering mid-day sun.
One real positive for Munster was their work on the floor and, one could argue, they should have managed a full return for late pressure in the first-half which, belatedly, saw try-scorer Ebethson depart to the bin after conceding his side's eighth penalty of the half when Murray's quick tap penalty caught the home side napping.
Munster chose discretion when opting for the three points, rather than the opportunity, perhaps, to go for the jugular. At 14-10, and the wind at their backs to follow, they probably knew now was not the time to compound errors with panic.
Which was what they did in almost the first play, Bleyendaal booming the ball dead from inside his own half. Not the best start.
They were addicted to releasing pressure all afternoon; both sides were in a contest of poor technical ability and little outstanding effort, although the ferocity and tackling rarely relented for the 80 minutes.
Munster re-composed; as their scrum pressure grew; they found themselves in the corner and, after two sloppy enough lineout retentions, Castres went offside and, for the second time in ten minutes, Murray's razor-sharp thinking reaped rewards as he set up Dave Kilcoyne from a few yards out to give Munster the lead for the first time all afternoon.
Bleyendaal, who has consistently kicked well in this competition although starting poorly in PRO 14 fare, extended the lead to 17-14 with a wonderful kick from the left touchline; Castres replied immediately with a penalty for offside following some extended volleyball at the restart.
An Earls intercept threatened the always vulnerable Castres' exit strategy but then Munster coughed up the ball themselves with some errant midfield crossing; Farrell the guilty party.
Castres mauled their way out of danger and then mauled their way into the dangerous territory for Munster; the outstanding Murray was forced to nudge his opposite number into touch as the hungry hosts threatened to forge ahead once more as the game stepped into the final quarter.
By that stage, Ian Keatley had stepped in for Bleyendaal.
Then Munster were forced to defend desperately on the opposite wing, Darren Sweetnam just managing to tackle Afuipa Taumpepeau into touch as they rampaged forward from deep, seeking to spoil a second Irish visiting team's afternoon in successive seasons.
Munster's scrum remained solid and, when they skewered the Castres pack once more in the 67th minute, Keatley got his chance from just inside half-way to restore the lead but the breeze dragged his kick wide and left.
His side did win the restart, though, and they then developed arguably their most concerted passage of pressure all afternoon, with Keatley giving them real shape but, despite multiple phases they ended up spilling the ball in a tackle and the danger was cleared as the clocked ticked into the final ten minutes.
It befitted a match which was dominated by mistakes, allowing each side to gather incremental momentum but never enough to force smothering pressure. Even Murray was guilty of poor handling.
By the end of it, Munster were clinging on for dear life as they watched Urdapilleta spurn two late chances to win it for the hosts, a 79th penalty which, due to the wind, actually never maade it near the posts, and a drop goal from the last play, which went too far right of them.
It was an escape, of sorts, for Munster but not a great one.
Castres Olympique: J Dumora (A Batlle 63); T Paris, A Taumoepeau, R Ebersohn, D Smith (F Vialelle 75); B Urdapilleta, R Kockott; A Tichit (M Lazar 70), J Jenneker, D Kotze (D Tussac 73), L Jacquet (A Jelonch 55), R Capo Ortega (c), Y Caballero, S Mafi, M Vaipulu ( C Samson 63)
Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam (A Conway 66), C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal (I Keatley 59), C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell (R Marshall 56), S Archer (J Ryan 55), M Flanagan (R Copeland 64), B Holland, P O'Mahony (c), T O'Donnell (J O'Donoghue 71), CJ Stander.
Replacements: R Marshall, L O'Connor, J Ryan, R Copeland,, D Williams, I Keatley, A Conway.
Referee: M Carley (England)