Regrets emanated from the lips of men emerging from the Munster dressing room after this opening Champions Cup draw in France, but relief can’t have been absent as the final whistle blew yesterday afternoon, writes Brendan O'Brien
They will certainly have played much better in the past and lost.
Twice in the closing minutes Benjamin Urdapilleta had kicks at the posts to claim the win for the hosts — the second of them a drop goal in injury-time — but both were rebuffed by a swirling wind that belied the blue skies and temperatures reaching the mid-twenties.
Munster had already been living dangerously.
Rory Kockott and Afusipa Taumoepeau had been edged into touch near two separate corner flags by Conor Murray and Darren Sweetnam inside that last quarter. An ambitious and unsuccessful Ian Keatley penalty from halfway was the visitors’ one lunge for the tape.
A first draw in Europe for Munster, then, since an 18-18 stalemate against Neath at The Gnoll back in October of 1998. A lucky one in many respects and yet Castres were as complicit in a helter-skelter game blighted by errors.
It finished level not only on the scoreboard but with two tries claimed apiece and with little difference between the sides in all sorts of sectors: from scrums, lineouts, turnovers, offloads, tackle percentages and more.
Munster actually enjoyed more territory, Castres the greater number of line breaks.
It was itty, bitty, frenetically exciting but with quality low on the Richter scale and it may be that the failure to overcome a Castres side that entered the weekend with domestic concerns after a poor start to the Top14 could come back to haunt Munster.
The hosts changed up almost half of their team from the XVs that had beaten Clermont Auvergne and then lost to Brive. They actually started with eight players north of the age of 30 and with their youngest cub a not-so-green 25.
Munster had issues of their own to deal with.
Rassie Erasmus had done some redecorating of his own after the loss to Leinster in Dublin with Tyler Bleyendaal restored to out-half, Rory Scannell to the midfield and Stephen Archer preferred to John Ryan just some of them.
They started the game much as they would finish it: under pressure. Annoyed by their indiscipline against Leinster in the Aviva Stadium eight days earlier, Munster were forced into the concession of five penalties inside the opening eight minutes here as Castres trucked up the middle and switched it wide to the channels.
Rassie Erasmus had served warning of that ability to change tack but Munster appeared helpless to stop it paying dividends, particularly with Kockott and Urdapilleta passing so flat to the line and drawing their receivers ever onwards.
Conor Murray saved a certain try by pulling Yannick Caballero back by the leg just as the flanker was poised to collect an Urdapilleta grubber and touch down and the scrum-half had to pay for it with a yellow card.
Only five minutes had passed. Worrying.
A Tommy O’Donnell intercept finally started the process of lifting the siege but Munster suffered a self-inflicted wound on 13 minutes when Chris Farrell opted for a loose pass infield that was snatched up by Robert Ebersohn and delivered under the posts.
It was, to be fair, simply the most costly mistake among many. Other expeditions into French territory were stymied by their own hands too: one to a botched lineout near the Castres 22 and another when the ball slipped forward from a maul.
Amidst the errors there were moments of potential.
Conor Murray made one half-break through the defensive line close to the half-hour that was supported through to the butt of the Castres posts and only the flagrant offside by Kockott prevented momentum taking them over.
The nine was lucky to evade the bin for it, but the reprieve for his team was temporary with O’Donnell and Dave Kilcoyne trucking up from the resultant penalty and lineout and Simon Zebo motoring over off an inch-perfect pass from Murray.
Rory Scannell’s decoy run was every bit as critical to it all as any other component part and it showed what could be done when all the pieces fit. What happened next showed just how easily and quickly a game could be lost when one comes loose.
Keith Earls made the first mistake in letting the restart drop and Castres pounced when Rory Scannell eventually failed with a clearance that was caught by the wind, full-back Julien Dumora gliding over after a breakthrough by Rodrigo Capo Ortega.
Back again swung the pendulum before the break, Ebersohn sent off for killing the ball as Munster sniffed the chalk again. A Bleyendaal penalty left it 14-10 to Castres at the interval and then Munster struck for what would be the last time seven minutes after the restart.
Murray was again key, tapping a quick penalty close to the Castres line and sending Kilcoyne through in the corner.
Bylendaal added the extra two to give the Irish side the lead but it was wiped out by an Urdapilleta penalty with 30 still to go.
The scoring was done by then, but not the harum-scarum.
J Dumora; T Paris, A Taumoepeau, R Ebersohn, D Smith; B Urdapilleta, R Kockott; A Tichit, J Jenneker, D Kotze; L Jacquet, R Capo Ortega; Y Caballero, S Mafi, M Vaipulu.
Replacements: A Jelonch for Jacquet (55); A Batlle for Dumora (63); C Samson for Vaipulu (64); M Lazar for Tichit (71); D Tussac for Kotze (74); F Vialelle for Smith (75).
MUNSTER: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; M Flanagan, B Holland; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: J Ryan for Archer and R Marshall for N Scannell (both 55); I Keatley for Bleyendaal (59); R Copeland for Flanagan (64); A Conway for Sweetnam (66); J O’Donoghue for O’Donnell (71).
Referee: M Carley (England).
This story first appeared on IrishExaminer.com