Munster detect new pro-European stance from Castres
Johann Van Graan highlights specific threats posed by current French champions
Chris Farrell and Joey Carbery during Munster training ahead of their Champions Cup meeting with Castres. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
No teams have met more often in the history of the Heineken Champions Cup than Munster and Castres.
The former boast a 10-3 record against the reigning French champions (along with one draw) and history has taught us that, in stark contrast to Munster, Castres are not especially pro-European.
Only once in 14 attempts have Castres progressed to the knock-out stages, and that was back in 2002 when they were beaten in the semi-finals by Munster.
Not blessed with the biggest squad in the Top 14, their approach was again vindicated last season they defied the odds to with their fifth Bouclier de Brennus overall and second in six seasons.
Amid the increasing urbanisation of the Top 14, Castres are also defying recent history as one of the few small town clubs competing with their big city, big brothers backed by multi-millionaire benefactors.
That they can still do so is down to their own benefactor Pierre Fabre, the founder of a local pharmaceutical company, who took over the club in 1988 and left it in a trust bearing his name after he passed away in July 2013.
Their domestic form again looks decidedly ho-hum, with last weekend’s surprise home loss to Agen their fifth in 11 games, thus leaving them seventh. But there is a palpable feeling within Munster’s high performance centre this week that Castres’ bonus point defeat away to Gloucester and 14-man win over Exeter signals a new-found intent in Europe.
Furthermore, Munster head coach Johann van Graan has highlighted threats which are specific to Castres.
“I think they play quite differently to most French teams; they are very structured in their kicking game. In my opinion quite a few teams have fallen into the trap of trying to play against them too much. They use their 9 and their 10 with their distant kicking game.
“[Robert] Ebersohn at 13 is pure class in the way that he organises that defence. They force you into overplaying and getting you into uncomfortable positions and then they’ve got a pretty big poach threat. If you look at the Exeter game they force pressure and force penalties and then once they get that maul going it is pretty difficult to stop.”
Van Graan came aboard after last season’s draw in round one, and oversaw the 48-3 win in round six, by which stage Castres were already out of contention.
Subsequently, Castres beat Toulouse, Toulon and Montpellier back to back in the knock-out stages to claim the French Championship, since when van Graan says “small parts of their game they have definitely grown.
“They seem a lot fitter this year and that is why I said some teams fall into the trap of fools’ gold against them and you do it at your own peril. That is why we have to be very specific in the way we approach them in the next two weeks because they do force a lot of errors.”
One game into the ten-week meat of their season, with the completion of the European pool stages sandwiching three interpro derbies, Munster face into this pivotal double header in good fettle after reintegrating most of their Irish front-liners and the fit-again Conor Murray and Chris Farrell for last week’s romp against Edinburgh, and with CJ Stander and Joey Carbery to return this week.
Long-term casualties James Cronin, Rhys Marshall and Jean Kleyn could be joined by Stephen Archer, who is suffering from an illness, on the sidelines, but Mike Haley (concussion) and Andrew Conway (knee) are expected to be fit, all the more so given a nine-day turnaround.
“I still have one or two issues, one or two guys who need to get through the week,” said van Graan.
“Obviously Joey and CJ are back, we need to see how they are. We are pretty close to the 26/27 guys who will be involved and as the week goes we will make our final decisions but it was great that the team which went out against Edinburgh was close to a starting team bar a few guys. I don’t expect a massive amount of changes this week.”
It will be the home supporters’ belated first sighting of the Murray-Carbery half-back axis in Munster red, although van Graan said they had not sought to give them additional time together in training this week.
“Obviously they have trained a bit together and played for Ireland together. If Joey and Conor get selected it will be like any normal week, get the job done in training and then get the job done on the field.”
Despite the Sunday 1pm kick-off time, over 23,000 tickets have been sold.
“It is always special on European days in Thomond Park,” said van Graan, who noted that the 23,000 attendance for the Gloucester game was the biggest of any attendance in the opening two rounds.
“It’s not a sell-out yet and hopefully a lot more tickets will be sold over the next few days to get close to that. Our guys love to play at Thomond Park and I’m sure Sunday will be no different. Hopefully that 16th man will come through for us.”