Sean Farrell reports from Thomond Park
SUNDAY AFTERNOON WAS a perfect storm of sorts.
A confluence of factors came together at Thomond Park to make for a dreadful game, difficult to watch and to create in.
All it was missing was an actual storm. That came earlier.
Some might raise an eyebrow at the wet conditions Johann van Graan bemoaned after a 30-5 win with the broadcast footage showing bright sunshine, but there were heavy downpours and swirling, skiting rain right up to the 1pm kick-off.
With a late withdrawal of Joey Carbery and Chris Farrell, they were tough conditions for Conor Murray to continue his comeback and the frustration of the Lions 9 bubbled to the surface during an incredibly scrappy first-half after he saw a second whipped pass bounce off the sure-handed Tadhg Beirne.
“Just try and get a drier ball on the field,” joked Van Graan when asked how he reacted to his chief playmaker’s outward frustration.
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“We just needed to shorten the passes and keep our depth and our feet a bit more. I think we did well. Like I said earlier, we’ve got to go through guys not around us in these conditions. I thought we did that well.”
The South African of course denies it, but there must be a sense of frustration that there is no bonus point to take from the home win. But it became clear in that first-half that mining anything out of the contest was going to be difficult, let alone five tournament points.
Match report: Influential Murray ensures Munster adapt to beat destructive Castres
Castres set the tone of the game early when they hacked at a loose Munster pass. They would react the same way to any dropped ball and before half-time was up, the reigning French champions managed to pump the ball away 20 times. In the same time period they passed just 18 times.
This was a quality team, their worth displayed only through vicious breakdown application and defensive line-speed, while their attacking gameplan was based on turning the match into an utter shambles and maybe picking up a score along the way.
A secure line-out to match their powerful scrum and a few less handling errors could have put tries on the board long before Murray took a mutt of a game by the scruff of the neck.
“We know from experience and looking at them over the last couple of months and playing against them a lot over the last few years how effective that kicking game can be and how hard it is to combat it,” said Peter O’Mahony post-match.
“There was a lot of stuff that we had to do off the ball to get in position to give ourselves the opportunity and I thought we did it quite well at times.”
The beauty of this back-to-back phase of the Heineken Champions Cup is that teams must now do it all over again. Castres were soundly beaten by a 25-point margin, but there were enough angry exchanges and squabbles to ensure a feisty return.
O’Mahony post-match. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Deep in the south of France, Castres are capable of conjuring a new storm for Munster to weather to keep hold of the reins in Pool 2 across the Christmas break.
“If you said at the start of the competition we would be leading at the halfway stage of course we would have taken it,” says Van Graan.
“You have to give credit to your opponents and I think the breakdown battle was a real battle on both sides of the ball and I think that ended up pretty equal.
“Look, you start against at zero because we can’t think about this one two much. We have to play an away game in the middle of France against the France champions so we will be sticking to our process.
“Emotionally and physically we will to reset ourselves and get back for a big one on Saturday.”
A whole new ball game will be a welcome prospect for all involved. Because this one was one to forget.
“You could have a beautiful day in the South of France and it’s a different animal,” says O’Mahony setting his focus on the Saturday return fixture.
“We always do get a warm (reception). We’ve played each other the most of any two teams in the competition and it’s always incredibly intense and heated. You have the cauldron over there that is Castres Rugby and we’ll be under no illusions that we’ll be going into a hostile environment.
“They’re the days that you look forward to, though, you know? It’s the biggest test of all, the French Top14 champions in their backyard, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
“But we’ll be looking forward to it and we’ll certainly be very conscious of the test that’s coming.”
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