If anyone in Munster underestimates the importance of a successful December in fulfilling European ambitions then the dark days of 2014 and 2015 should provide the necessary jolt.
Peter O’Mahony’s side welcome Castres to Thomond Park on Sunday for the first of the back-to-back rounds against the French champions and experience has taught the captain that rounds three and four are the fixtures which can define a pool campaign.
For all Munster’s consistency in making the Champions Cup semi-finals for the past two seasons, the failure to win at home in round three in 2014-15 and 15-16 cost the province dearly as they failed to get out of their pools each time.
Those defeats, to Clermont Auvergne in December 2014 and to Leicester Tigers 12 months later were not the only reason for not making the knockout stages but they did contribute massively to the disappointments and O’Mahony believes the likelihood of success in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup hinges on this weekend’s clash with Castres.
“They do, 100%. It’s first and second in the group at the moment, you’ll know after these two weeks where the whole thing stands,” the Munster skipper said.
“The European season depends on Sunday for us, because we’re first up at home.”
Castres are familiar opponents for O’Mahony and his team. No two sides have met in Europe more often and they have been drawn together for the second season in succession. Munster scraped a fortunate draw in Castres in October 2017 but rebounded for the return fixture in round six last January to score their biggest victory over a French side in a 48-3 hammering at Thomond Park.
What’s more, they come into this Pool 2 showdown on the back of an unbeaten six-game run since an October 6 loss at Leinster, which started with an away draw in the pool opener at Exeter Chiefs and has continued with wins over Gloucester, followed by PRO14 rivals Glasgow, the Cheetahs, Zebre, and Edinburgh.
“We’ve come out on the right side of a couple of very close games and that is massively important for us going back even before the Glasgow game which was a big match for us. We’ve got a decent amount of points, particularly in the league, in the last few weeks and it was very important for the standings. But Castres this week are going to be a huge challenge for us.”
O’Mahony continued: “I’ve played against them plenty of times and watched them when I was smaller. I think we’ve played each other the most of any two teams in the competition and so there’s a good history between us and it’s always hugely difficult. We drew with them in the first game of the pool stages last year. It was a hot day and people gave us a bit of stick and wrote them off and they went on to be the Top14 champions. We were happy to come out of there with a draw.
“Even the game in Thomond Park in round six was hugely close up to a certain point. There was a kind of stalemate and then Earlsy scored and it just gave us a little breathing space. But it was incredibly physical. They lost at the weekend (at home to relegation strugglers Agen) and we know how passionate they are of their home records, and we know they’ll be hurting this week to come and put a performance in, and to make that right.”
Blindside flanker O’Mahony’s lineout prowess will have to be deployed to maximum effect against a Castres set-piece he rates very highly.
“Their lineout has been very, very effective, particularly their lineout contesting. They have some very good jumpers. Their pack is always what sets the tone for them. That’s probably why we’ve a bit of a relationship with them. We’re quite similar that way.
“But they’ve had some ups and downs, but we know that particularly in Europe, it brings a different side out in a team, and we’re expecting nothing less from Castres. They’ve a massive kicking game. They try and put a huge amount of pressure on, try and force penalties, and their lineout maul is hugely effective. So discipline is going to be hugely important this weekend, and the less access we can give them to penalties the better, because they’re very clinical when it comes to 15, 20 yards out. Close in with their maul they’re also hugely effective.”
Given the physical exertions O’Mahony went through for Ireland against Argentina and the All Blacks last month, many were surprised to see the back-rower return to Munster colours as quickly as he did when he led the province to victory in Cork last Friday against Edinburgh.
Yet the captain was pleased to get the run out and that he is also playing some brilliant rugby, as evidenced by his man of the match performance against New Zealand three weeks ago.
“My pre-season has stood to me. The amount of rugby I have played has stood to me now. It takes a while to get back into getting match fit and I’m feeling good now.
“Looking back on the last four or five games I’ve played, there’s a huge amount of improvement and movement in that direction for me as well.
“It’s a good place to be, but we’ve another massive test this week and after that you’re just judged on that one. So, it’s about me getting myself right now this week for a massive challenge.”