Munster 19 Castres 13
A home crowd is invariably an accurate barometer of a game and this was certainly the case here. The Saturday night attendance of 21,250 was in giddy, pre-Christmas, pre-mini lockdown mood for the off and were roused sporadically but ultimately headed off into their last night out of year in somewhat muted if relieved mood.
Munster would love to have put on a show for the biggest home crowd in almost two years, all the more so after digging into their roots in their hour of need for the stirring win in Wasps six days previously.
But there always the distinct possibility of a comedown from the high in Coventry, which was such a unique one-off game. How could there not be? For example, Peter O’Mahony played very well here but how could he possibly repeat the epic all-round performance which he did in Coventry?
The five players called in after their 10 days in isolation post the fraught South African trip – Ben Healy, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Jack O'Donoghue – were all playing their first game in eight weeks or so.
Rustiness abounded. They took some inventive kicking options, such as Keith Earls's counter-kick crossfield pass for Andrew Conway which led to Healy making it 6-0.
There was ambition, but at times Munster overplayed their hand and had the Castres winger Bastien Guillemin not fumbled turnover ball at the outset of each half he would have had a clear run to the line each time.
A failure to execute launch plays contributed to Munster’s inability to build any kind of sustained pressure. At times, therefore, they had no option but to turn to Conor Murray’s box-kicking, which was on the money, or the strength of Healy’s boot.
Significantly, TMO Ian Tempest adjudged there had been "separation" between Damian de Allende's hands and the ball when seemingly scoring the try his barnstorming, multi-faceted man-of-the-match display in the 35th minute. Had he not, Munster would have led 13-0, albeit minor consolation came by way of Healy's third penalty for a 9-0 lead.
It also takes two sides to tango, and a physically, gritty Castres don't do tango. Furthermore, Matthew Carling had an over-bearing influence in awarding 25 penalties – 13-12 in Munster's favour.
Add in 25 lineouts – and for some reason Munster persistently took an age on their own throws – along with seven scrums, and 54 kicks out of hand (26 by Castres), it all made for a slow-paced, stop-start, stodgy game, all of which better suited Castres.
To their credit, despite a remodelled side,and their own apparent reluctance to even make the trip and having lost on all seven previous visits to Munster, the French side fronted up defensively.
“I thought we started pretty well, and had some opportunities, but couldn’t keep the ball,” admitted head coach Johann van Graan. “Unfortunately Damian couldn’t score there, which would have potentially taken the score to 13-0. We went nine up, conceded just before half-time, got in front again and fair play to them they stayed in the game.
“They’re a tough side to play. They’re a really, really tough side to play. They’ve got a really good maul, a very long kicking game which puts you in your half and we made a lot of errors tonight. But the most pleasing thing is the win under the circumstances and these ones you need to win to put you in a position hopefully for playoffs later in the season.
“We’ve got two more in the Champions Cup to go, hopefully we can get into the knock-out phases and when you look at that in April, potentially you look back at nights like this. But we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. It’s back to the URC now and in the middle of January we’ll resume the Champions Cup.”
Presuming the Champions Cup does indeed resume. But for what it’s worth, Munster stand second in Pool B as one of only five unbeaten sides in that half of the draw. It leaves them about as well placed as they could have hoped, all the more so given their build-up.
“I have not even looked at the log. The thing I am glad about is that we have two wins out of two. When we spoke a few weeks ago, we certainly would have taken two out of two at that stage. Obviously the next game is on a Friday evening in Castres in the middle of January so we look forward to that – and I am just thankful that we played the game. We would have taken nine points.”
Fittingly capping a somewhat anti-climactic night, Castres' experienced Argentinian outhalf Benjamin Urdapilleta opted to kick the ball dead inside his own 10-metre line in overtime to secure their second losing bonus point.
This went down well with coach David Darricarrère.
“We take a point tonight, which satisfies us. We still played a big game in a very, very particular context. We are satisfied with the state of mind of the boys.
"We finish the match 15 against 14 for 15 minutes," he added in reference to losing replacement Louis Le Brun, albeit with seven minutes remaining.
“We manage to score. We never gave up against one of the best teams in Europe, it also proves the depth of the workforce we have today and the state of mind of everything the squad. It’s very interesting. But we can have regrets, we could have done better, even if we had a lot of young players.”
SCORING SEQUENCE – 8 mins: Healy pen 3-0; 29: Healy pen 6-0; 35: Healy pen 9-0; 40: Urdapilleta pen 9-3; (half-time 9-3); 58: O'Donoghue try, Healy con 16-3; 53: Urdipaletta pen 16-6; 70: Healy pen 19-6; 78: Kornath try, Urdipaletta con 19-13.
MUNSTER: Patrick Campbell; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Ben Healy, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), John Hodnett, Jack O'Donoghue.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron for Scannell, Josh Wycherley for Kilcoyne, Keynan Knox for Ryan (all 53 mins); Jason Jenkins for Kleyn (63 ); Jack O'Sullivan for O'Donoghue, Craig Casey for Murray, Jack Crowley for Healy (all 70); Alex Kendellen for Hodnett (72 ).
CASTRES: Thomas Larregain; Bastien Guillemin, Thomas Combezou, Pierre Aguillon, Filipo Nakosi; Benjamin Urdapilleta, Santiago Arate; Wayan de Benedittis, Gaetan Barlot, Wilfred Hounkpatin; Loic Jacquet (capt), Theo Hannoyer; Nick Champion de Crespigny, Simon Meka, Kevin Kornath.
Replacements: Brice Humbert for Barlot, Julius Nostadt for de Benedittis, Antoine Guillamon for Hiunkpatin (all half-time); Jack Whetton for Hannoyer, Rory Kockott for Arate (both 50 mins); Mateaki Kafatolou for De Crspigny, Antoine Zeghdar for Nakosi (both 66); Louis le Brun for Guillemin (70).
Referee: Matthew Carley (England).