Peter O’Mahony expecting a massive challenge from Castres
Munster’s season largely dependent on result against French champions
Peter O’Mahony: “Your European season depends on this Saturday really for us, because we’re first up at home.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
No team knows how to navigate their way through the treacherous European pool stages better than Munster, so no team also appreciate the importance of these upcoming back-to-back rounds more than the men in red.
Simply put, they very often define a pool campaign.
“Yeah, they do, one hundred per cent,” agrees Peter O’Mahony. “First and second in the group at the moment, so you’ll know after these two weeks where the whole thing stands really. Your European season depends on this Saturday really for us, because we’re first up at home.”
Indeed, while Munster have built an incomparable history at their Thomond Park fortress in the Heineken Champions Cup, with this comes huge pressure to beat the French champions on Sunday (kick-off 1pm).
O’Mahony speaks from experience too. When Munster uncharacteristically went out at the pool stages in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, the wounds that cut the deepest were against Clermont and Leicester in the corresponding, first-up, home game of these double headers. Those defeats had left Munster in deep waters and not even they could find dry ground.
Similarly, in the 2010-11 season, although a round six defeat in Toulon ultimately eliminated them, Munster could also reflect that it was the 19-15 defeat away by the Ospreys in the second of their back-to-back meetings which effectively cost them a place in the last eight.
Those are the only three occasions in the last 20 years when Munster have failed to progress to the knock-out stages.
Returning to the competition that has been so good to them and which they have graced with as many memories, Munster are on an unbeaten run of six games and Monday brought the customary pep in their step.
“As usual, it’s back to Heineken Cup rugby again and they’re always special weeks in this club,” said O’Mahony. “As you always hear me say coming in the door on a Monday morning it’s a different week and a great buzz around the place.”
The return to European action also finds O’Mahony himself in a good place. Munster are on a six game unbeaten run since their loss to Leinster in the Aviva, and O’Mahony is noticeably more match fit and battle-hardened.
The decision to play an hour last week means O’Mahony has started eight games for Munster as well as two for Ireland, compared to five games for his province and two for his country going into the Leicester double header last season.
However, he points out that as well as being excused duty from the Chicago win over Italy, he had a few days off in the week of the USA game, when also rested.
“I was eager to get back in. I’ve had a good run of games and I think it’s good for me to play rugby. We’re well managed from the IRFU down and here as well. So, it was 60 minutes I was glad to get under my belt.
“I think my pre-season has stood to me. The amount of rugby I have played has stood to me now. It takes a while to get back into getting match fit and I’m feeling good now. Looking back on the last four or five games I’ve played, there’s a huge amount of improvement and movement in that direction for me as well.
“It’s a good place to be, but we’ve another massive test this week and after that you’re just judged on that one. So, it’s about me getting myself right now this week for a massive challenge.”
On the face of it, that is perhaps more difficult than normal after what was a monumental November, encompassing four matches and the high of beating the All Blacks for the first time on home soil. How to follow that?
“Yeah, look it takes a toll,” admitted O’Mahony. “We knew beforehand it takes the biggest performance of the year to play against them [New Zealand]. It’s always probably the fastest, most physical game you’re going to come across. So, look, it took its toll as you saw towards the last 15, 20 minutes [against Edinburgh]. But it was nice to have a few days off afterwards. I came back in to camp for a few days and then got some time off to get over it well.”
Although Castres lost at home to Agen last week, O’Mahony believes that will make them a more wounded and dangerous animal.
“Their lineout has been very, very effective, particularly their lineout contesting. They have some very good jumpers. Their pack is always what sets the tone for them. That’s probably why we’ve a bit of a relationship with them. We’re quite similar that way. Look, they’ve had some ups and downs, but we know that particularly in Europe, it brings a different side out in a team, and we’re expecting nothing less from Castres.”
“They’ve a massive kicking game. They try and put a huge amount of pressure on, try and force penalties, and their lineout maul is hugely effective. So the discipline battle is going to be hugely important this weekend, and the less access we can give them with regard to penalties the better, because they’re very clinical when it comes to 15/20 yards out. Close in with their maul they’re hugely effective.”
O’Mahony knows it’s time for Munster to bring their Euro game.