Win-or-bust scenario usually brings the best out of Munster
In-form Castres not the rank outsiders the bookies’ odds would suggest
Peter O’Mahony: “Momentum is a huge factor to their [Castres] game and it is something that is difficult to stop when they get it.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Munster v Castres, Sunday, Thomond Park, 1pm - Live Sky Sports
One always somehow suspected Munster would earn the bonus point which kept them just atop pool 4, and that therefore they would face a win-or-bust finale at home to Castres. If it’s the third weekend in January, Munster must be facing a do-or-die European mission at Thomond Park. It’s a dog-eared script but no less fun for all of that.
Given how things have panned out, Munster’s opening weekend draw in Castres looks more meritorious now than it did then, for Castres have won seven on the bounce at home in both competitions, and have also won seven of their last eight games in the Top 14 to rise to fourth in the table.
Last week’s 39-0 thrashing of Leicester looked to be a statement of intent, and they have made just five changes to their starting line-up. One of those sees the recall of leading try-scorer David Smith, and another is the return of South African-born French scrumhalf Rory Kockott, whose decision to kick the ball out at Twickenham sealed Ireland’s 2015 Six Nations title.
Against that, their influential leading points scorer, Argentinian Benjamin Urdapilleta, is one of those left out, but their selection would seem to suggest they are clinging to the hope of qualifying as a best runners-up, even though that could be extinguished by kick-off due to results today. Even so, the bookies’ odds look even more unnerving in that light, for this could be an altogether bumpier ride that those odds suggest.
Reflecting on that opening draw, Peter O’Mahony commented: “We experienced them a couple of months ago in France. Their set-piece is quality. They have a quality lineout and maul, their scrum is massive to their game. They are obviously a team that momentum is a huge factor to their game and it is something that is difficult to stop when they get it.
“The lads will do a lot of video analysis and we know how difficult it is going to be. We are a smaller side and we are struggling sometimes with momentum stopping. It’s something that we are going to have to address and really put our heads down for this weekend.
“We always go out with the ambition to play rugby and to play ball. Lots of developments dictate what you can and can’t do. We’ll see later in the week what way the weather is, but we will go out on Sunday to play rugby and you have seen the ability of our forwards and backs have to play the game and to play rugby and play ball. Every week we go out and try and take opportunities no matter what the weather. That is what we will try and do on Sunday.”
Like that opener, last week’s bonus point felt in many ways like a win Munster left behind, although by the same token it could have been worse. However, an unchanged selection is also a statement of intent as well as relatively good health.
“In these games, my appreciation of those are it comes down to big moments,” says Johann Van Graan. “Big plays and it’s pressure. We need to handle the pressure better than our opposition. We need to absorb pressure and convert pressure into points. I believe that will be the same all across Europe this weekend.”
Indeed, their set-pieces look up to a demanding task, key men are in good form, notably in a stronger middle five, an improving midfield combination and in the razor-sharp outside three of Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway.
They’re generally better in win-or-bust mode, think back to 2007 when they qualified with a round to spare and duly lost at home to Leicester.
Maybe one of these days their last weekend brinkmanship will not suffice but one suspects it won’t be this one, and come kick-off their need will be all the greater.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Niall Scannell, James Cronin, John Ryan, Darren O’Shea, Jack O’Donoghue, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Alex Wootton.
CASTRES OLYMPIQUE: Geoffrey Palis; Kylian Jaminet, Thomas Combezou, Robert Ebersohn (capt), David Smith; Julien Dumora, Rory Kockott; Antoine Tichit, Jody Jenneker, Damien Tussac; Alexandre Bias, Thibault Lassalle; Yannick Caballero, Steve Mafi, Alex Tulou.
Replacements: Kevin Firmin, Tudor Stroe, Daniel Kotze, Victor Moreaux, Baptiste Delaporte, Yohan Domenech, Yohan Le Bourhis, Afusipa Taumoepeau.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).
Head-to-head: Played 13, Munster 9 wins, 1 draw, Castres 3 wins.
Leading points scorers: Munster – Ian Keatley 49. Castres – Benjamin Urdapilleta 35.
Leading try scorers: Munster _ Simon Zebo 2. Castres _ David Smith 3.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 1/50 Munster, 50/1 Draw, 20/1 Castres. Handicap odds (Castres + 25 pts) Evens Munster, 16/1 Draw, Evens Castres.
Forecast: Munster to win.