Munster lost their unbeaten record in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup as they lost a nail-biting clash at Stade Pierre-Fabre tonight.
The one-point defeat means the losing bonus point at the home of the French champions keeps Munster at the top of Pool 2 with a three-point cushion with two matches to play.
Munster had escaped Castres with a share of the points last season after a 17-17 draw in the opening round of their pool but there was no great escape to victory this time around as Castres clung on with 14 men for the final 10 minutes to move into second in the pool.
Joey Carbery kicked the opening points of the game in an opening half played in a persistent drizzle, with a third-minute penalty as he made his return to the fly-half berth after missing the round three meeting with Castres with a tight hamstring.
It was the summer signing’s first opportunity to play alongside a fit-again Conor Murray and it was the scrum-half who handed him his first shot at goal after he received some unwanted attention at the back of a ruck.
It was a long-distance kick from behind the 10-metre line but Carbery’s confidence to take on the attempt was vindicated as he sent the ball between the posts. Castres had gone 80 minutes in Limerick six days earlier before finally getting points on the board but they had an early chance here to make an impact as the home pack, changed en masse from last Sunday, struck an early blow by winning a penalty at the first engagement in the eighth minute. Fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta failed to reward their efforts, though, but made amends for his missed kick two minutes later to level the scores at 3-3.
His opposite number went through the same scenario moments later, missing one penalty then nailing another on 20 minutes to edge the visitors back in front.
It was short-lived as Castres gathered some fresh momentum from the restart, Yannick Caballero tapping a ruck penalty to advance to the Munster 22 from where his fellow forwards built through the phases and then launched loosehead Paea Fa’anunu over the line for the first try of the game on 22 minutes, Urdapilleta’s conversion opening up a 10-6 lead. That was the way it stayed to the interval, though Munster had their chance to strike just before half-time after a Keith Earls break down the left wing, earning a lineout inside 22.
Munster maintained the pressure from there and off a scrum, Murray’s break from the base fed Rory Scannell who carried to five metres. More pressure was applied but having won a penalty on five metres, a decision to tap and go backfired as Castres turned the ball over at a ruck to end the half four points in front.
That lead was cut to a single point 11 minutes into the second period as Castres were penalised for collapsing a maul, much to the displeasure of the home crowd but through their boos and whistles, Carbery kept his nerve to kick the penalty.
Munster were in danger of unravelling though as Castres mounted a response, and when their rolling maul was collapsed inside the visitors’ 22, referee Wayne Barnes sin-binned hooker Niall Scannell. Urdapilleta added insult to injury by booting his side into a 13-9 lead.
Munster would close the gap once more, with a Carbery penalty on 65 minutes but their chance of stealing victory was denied with two missed kicks, the first when Murray missed from long-range.
Munster did get the ball over the line when Andrew Conway broke down the left, chipped the last man and slid over with the ball, only for the TMO to call a knock-on as Conway was sliding home. Barnes did spot an off the ball tackle on Peter O’Mahony, however, for which substitute hooker Marc-Antoine Railler was yellow-carded.
Yet Carbery missed the penalty opportunity from out wide on the right and Munster failed to capitalise on their one-man advantage. The losing bonus point keeps them on top of the group but it could have been a much healthier cushion heading into the final two pool games.