Just when Munster were offered a bit of breathing space with Exeter Chiefs recording an excellent away win over Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday night, Johann van Graan’s side were unable to take advantage, conspiring to lose an eminently winnable game against Castres, writes
As a consequence Munster now find themselves in a real dogfight to get out of their pool with the prospect of hosting a home quarter-final taking a severe dent.
Despite still topping Pool 2, advancement to the knockout stage looks like going right down to the wire with another challenging trip to Gloucester next up when the tournament resumes in four weeks’ time.
If Munster were somewhat fortunate to emerge with a draw in the corresponding fixture last season when Robin Copeland looked to have given away a clear penalty at the death that went unpunished, Munster will rue leaving this one behind.
Joey Carbery picked a bad day to leave his kicking boots at home with three vital penalty misses along with another from Conor Murray resulting in a 50% return from placed balls. Munster’s decision-making also let them down at key moments. That coupled with poor execution at two attacking lineouts, with the introduction of Yannick Caballero creating havoc on the Munster throw, proved crucial.
The nasty undercurrent that simmered just below the surface throughout last week’s game in Thomond Park was far more visible this time out with Murray a clear target off the ball and after the whistle.
Allegations of gouging, a nasty tackle on Peter O’Mahony who didn’t even have the ball which led to a yellow card for Castres reserve hooker Marc-Antoine Rallier, and some off the ball incidents that may yet attract the attention of the citing commissioner suggests that these two teams could do without meeting again for some time.
Castres were taken to the cleaners at scrum time in the first of these back-to-back contests and with a brand new front row incorporated into five changes to the forward unit that started in Limerick, their first point of attack was always going to be the scrum.
Referee Wayne Barnes had his hands full in dealing with this aspect but the frenzied reaction of the Castres front five when the English official awarded a penalty to the home side at the very first scrum could not have been greater had they won the Champions Cup there and then.
It was clear that they set their sights on setting the record straight in this area but Munster were not for yielding and fought back to win a number of crucial scrum penalties of their own which was vital given that the wet and slippery conditions dictated there was going to be more engagements than normal.
The sight of the two Castres props being withdrawn from action one minute after the break signalled a mini victory for the visitors.
Castres gleaned far more success from their decision to resource the breakdown with more zeal than they displayed at any stage in Limerick — they were far more aggressive in competing for turnovers and in their appetite for counter-rucking.
At crucial times in this tempestuous contest Munster’s composure under pressure was suspect, not least in a crucial attacking phase just before the break.
Having worked extremely hard to establish a foothold in the Castres 22, the hosts were reduced to 14 men when Springbok scrum-half Rory Kockott was dispatched to the bin for slapping the ball out of Murray’s hands a metre from the line.
Down a man, Munster could have opted for a scrum, a kick to the corner for a driving lineout maul, or take a straightforward kick from under the posts to reduce the Castres lead to a single point.
Instead Murray opted for a quick tapped penalty but Castres reacted far quicker than some of the Munster players which resulted in a crucial turnover penalty, enabling the home side sprint to the dressing room on a psychological high.
A missed penalty from Carbery immediately after the break meant Munster left six points behind them in a matter of minutes that would have made all the difference at the final whistle.
Having been treated to glimpses of more attacking intent out wide in recent games, Castres improved line speed in defence forced Munster to revert to type, employing a series of pick and drives off rucks and powerful carries from CJ Stander, who was immense throughout, Tadhg Beirne, and Dave Kilcoyne.
Those marginal gains had the desired effect but Munster couldn’t close the deal with Andrew Conway denied what looked like a match-clinching try when losing control of the ball in the act of scoring.
What Barnes failed to take into consideration was the role the lunging feet-first tackle from Castres out half Benjamin Urdapileta played in that sequence.
He could have done untold damage.
When looking for reasons for this defeat however, Munster need look no further than themselves.
This contest was there for the taking but they were unable to close the deal and that is a big worry. Only time will tell just how costly more dropped points on the road will prove.
In contrast, champions Leinster were back to their clinical best at the Aviva Stadium with a four-try bonus point firmly in the bag before the break.
That win over Bath tees up a step back in time with a mouthwatering clash at the RDS next time out against a resurgent European giant in Toulouse who top Pool 1, two points ahead of the holders.
That contest will decide who hosts a home quarter-final next April as both teams now look certain to advance to the knockout phase.
What stood out most from this clash was Leinster’s ability to address and resolve the issues that put them to the pin of their collar to win at the Rec only seven days earlier.
In that game they lost all the big collisions and were outplayed on the deck when Sam Underhill and Francois Lowe generated eight turnovers between them.
Clearly stung by this, Leinster responded in kind and turned the tide on their visitors.
It helped that there was a more balanced look to their back row with Jack Conan reacting forcibly to the decision to omit him from the start in the previous round.
He was outstanding and not only showed the value in having a genuine No 8 working off the base of the scrum but chipped in with an excellent try after only seven minutes.
Leinster looked classy in attack with Johnny Sexton pulling the strings magnificently while Gary Ringrose, James Lowe and Jordan Larmour all produced moments of sheer class.
Last month’s international window taught us that while Larmour still has a bit to go when it comes to mastering the basic requirements of the full-back role in terms of positioning and solidity under the high ball, his attacking prowess with ball in hand is unrivaled.
When he eventually marries both aspects of the role, Leinster and Ireland will have another world-class performer at their disposal.