Tony McGahan’s side, fresh from their remarkable overtime drop-goal victory over Northampton Saints last week, arrived in Toulouse yesterday afternoon to learn that Castres coaches Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit had made nine changes and two further positional switches to the team which started last Saturday’s opening pool defeat at Scarlets.
Having already ceded some advantage by switching the game from their intimidating 10,000-capacity Stade Pierre Antoine to the wide expanses of Toulouse’s home ground, Castres’ management have taken a further gamble by making drastic alterations to their line-up.
Four of the front five who started the 31-23 reverse in Wales last week have been omitted, with France tighthead Luc Ducalcon dropped to the bench and the first-choice second row replaced, albeit with an international pair of locks in Scott Murray of Scotland and Samoa’s Joe Tekori, who started last week’s game in the back row.
Captain Chris Masoe has been switched from blindside flanker to number eight while backs coach Labit, already without South African scrum-half Rory Kockott, has jettisoned his other regular place-kicker, full-back Romain Teulet as well as fly-half Remi Tales.
Munster’s director of rugby McGahan, meanwhile, had the luxury of naming an unchanged side from the XV which started the 23-21 win over last year’s finalists and has strengthened his bench with the return of loosehead prop Marcus Horan after a sore ankle forced his withdrawal seven days ago. John Ryan steps aside to allow Horan to return.
Munster’s bench proved to be one of the deciding factors last week as Donncha O’Callaghan, Denis Leamy, John Hayes and Tomás O’Leary all put their vast experience to good use in the dying moments at Thomond Park, all making significant contributions to those 41 phases before Ronan O’Gara launched his already legendary drop goal.
And regardless of the Castres personnel, it will need another 80-plus minutes’ performance from the Munster 23 if the province is to eke out an 11th Heineken Cup win from 26 starts on French soil.
Munster will take to the field knowing that they need to stop Castres from getting an early grip on the game, as they are a side who like to play direct rugby through their forwards and keep the scoreboard ticking over throughout, as McGahan underlined when asked about the Top 14 outfit.
“They’re an excellent side,” McGahan said. “Over the last two or three years they’ve brought a real consistency to their play and that’s been evident by the way they’ve finished in the Top 14 in what is a very attritional and a very competitive competition.
“You need to be there, in and abouts every week to make it into the top four and they’ve done that.
“They’ve started this season extremely well and they have the ability to really hurt sides with regard to physicality when they get their forwards on the front foot through set-piece and through carry.
“They’ve got big centres and a good combination at nine and 10 who kick the ball extremely well and control field position.
“So if you allow them to get that foothold in the game they’re very difficult to break down after that.”
Munster’s last European trip to France may have ended in an Amlin Challenge Cup victory over Brive last April but it is their most recent Heineken Cup foray there, to Toulon last January, which will inform the players more as they prepare to face Castres.
A raucous crowd in Stade Mayol inspired Toulon into a high intensity which saw them charge into every collision and force a string of penalties and two yellow cards for the visitors.
Munster only enjoyed very brief superiority and will be wary of handing the initiative over so readily this time around.
Castres have given them a glimmer of hope with their team selection but Munster have to put in the hard work to keep them at bay; use their heads, keep their discipline and match the expected French physicality if they are going to get anything out of this particular French excursion.
It could be another epic, and on French soil it will be all the harder to engineer such a joyous conclusion as last week.