JJ Hanrahan stepped into the breach for Munster and guided the province to a convincing victory over Castres at Thomond Park as Johann van Graan’s side stretched their lead at the top of Heineken Champions Cup Pool 2 at the halfway stage.
Fly-half Hanrahan had been named on the bench when van Graan named his team on Friday as back up to Joey Carbery but when the starter sustained a hamstring injury in training, the Kerryman was moved into the number 10 jersey and took his opportunity with aplomb, scoring 20 of his side’s 30 points with a try, two penalties and three conversions.
Munster have now their last 11 home games in Europe and the win opened up a three-point advantage over closest rivals Gloucester after three of the six rounds while Castres have still win on Irish soil.
Yet Munster’s best-laid plans had been further disrupted before kick-off when in addition to losing Carbery, Chris Farrell pulled up during the warm-up on chilly, breezy and drizzly lunchtime at Thomond Park.
It was a blow for the player, just a week after making his first start since a serious knee injury last March and it forced van Graan into another backline reshuffle as Sammy Arnold was promoted from the bench to outside centre with South African Jaco Taute taking his place among the replacements.
Despite Munster running in eight tries against Edinburgh, their goal-kicking had not been up to speed, Hanrahan missing four of his six conversion attempts and Tyler Bleyendaal failing with both of his two-point shots. Yet it was Hanrahan’s boot that was all that separated the two sides at half-time as Munster edged an opening period they had dominated throughout.
Such was Munster’s firm grip on this contest that Castres failed to visit the home 22 in the first 40 minutes but for all their lack of possession, they will have been happy to go in at the interval just six points in arrears.
Hanrahan’s penalties came on seven and 20 minutes but Munster should have had more points on the board despite playing into a testing wind. A failure to convert opportunities was again the issue, the lineout failing to fire in 11th minute after captain Peter O’Mahony had instructed his fly-half to kick a penalty to the corner. Niall Scannell’s throw on the five-metre line was missed at the back and Castres were off the hook. In open play, too, there were handling errors at crucial moments in opposition territory, with Tadhg Beirne, against type, twice the culprit.
Munster’s scrummaging was far more productive, the home pack winning three penalties at the set-piece and if the forwards were not grinding the French down, scrum-half Conor Murray was like a terrier harassing both No.8 Alex Tulou and his opposite number Ludovic Radosavljevic, forcing both into mistakes and turnovers.
Yet 6-0 was all the tangible reward as they went into the half-time break. Last January, in round six of the pool stages, Munster had led the same opposition 13-3 at the interval before running in five second-half tries to romp to a 48-3 and there was a sense of deja-vu as the reds restarted with the opening try just three minutes in the second period as Murray broke off the back of a scrum and passed out of contact to Rory Scannell, who powered over for Hanrahan to convert from close range..
There would be no bonus point this time but a Hanrahan penalty on 57 minutes and a try from Stander 14 minutes later, again courtesy of a Murray pass, put the game beyond the visitors. Hanrahan added the conversion and then grabbed his team’s third try, completing a perfect day off the tee to convert his own score on the way to claiming the man of the match award.
There was a try at the death for Castres from substitute Martin Laveau as the game ended scrappily for Munster, who also lost Andrew Conway to a late yellow card for an early tackle without the ball, but that will do little to dampen Irish spirits ahead of next Saturday’s return fixture at Stade Pierre Fabre.
MUNSTER: M Haley (T Bleyendaal, 76); A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell (J Taute, 76), K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray (A Mathewson, 69); D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 72), N Scannell (K O’Byrne, 45), J Ryan (C Parker, 76); T Beirne, B Holland (F Wycherley, 68); P O’Mahony - captain, C Cloete (A Botha, 64), CJ Stander.
Yellow card: Conway 78-end
CASTRES OLYMPIQUE: S Spedding; A Batlle (M Laveau, 59), T Combezou, F Vialelle, T Paris; B Urdapilleta, L Radosavljevic (R Kockott, 70); A Tichit (P Fa'anunu, 45), J Jenneker (K Firmin, 45), D Kotze (M Clerc, 45); L Jacquet (C Samson, 62), T Lassalle; M Babillot - captain, K Gimeno (Y Caballero, h-t), A Tulou (J Caminati, 70).
Referee: JP Doyle (England)