Munster expect French to fight

All the evidence may point to Castres running up the white flag in Limerick today but Munster have plenty of reasons to expect yet another tough challenge on a crucial afternoon of Heineken Cup rugby at Thomond Park.

Munster may be sitting pretty atop Pool 1, five points clear of Scarlets with four wins from four and knowing a bonus-point win today allied to a home defeat for the Welsh region against Northampton Saints will guarantee a quarter-final spot ahead of next week’s final round.

Yet nothing about those four wins has allowed Munster and head coach Tony McGahan to rest easy ahead of this round five encounter.

Lest they forget, last-gasp drop goals against both Northampton and Castres were needed to squeeze home in the first two pool games, Scarlets were a Stephen Jones knock-on from parity in round three and while the margin of victory was slightly wider against the Welsh back at Thomond Park, in captain Paul O’Connell’s own words, there was a distinctly uncomfortable finish to that 19-13 win.

So the message in that Munster dressing room before kick-off today will be reinforced: forget Castres’ lowly position in Pool 1, ignore their 45-0 calamity at Franklin’s Gardens in round four, disregard the six tries they leaked last weekend at Stade Francais and dismiss at your peril the 11 changes they have made since.

There is no doubt Castres have prioritised their domestic campaign all along, their resources do not stretch to those of their French Top 14 rivals Toulouse, Toulon, Stade Francais and Clermont Auvergne. Last weekend’s 38-21 defeat at Stade Charlety, however, saw Castres slip to fourth place in their league and will have underlined that emphasis on home challenges now their hopes of a play-off place have come under threat.

So captain and former New Zealand back row Chris Masoe, such an influence in Castres’ best performances, is given the afternoon off, as are France prop Luc Ducalcon and Scotland centre Max Evans, while goal-kicking machine and scrum-half Rory Kockott, Scottish lock Scott Murray and Fijian veteran centre Seremaia Bai are demoted to the bench.

And yet, as O’Connell pointed out this week, no matter their personnel, Castres will always focus on their set-piece and take pride in their scrummaging, lineout and maul. Added to that, they will always be immensely physical at the breakdown and punish any lapses in accuracy with some straight-shooting goal-kicking.

Nothing will change at Thomond today in those regards. And as for a bonus point, do not even entertain the thought, said Munster’s boss.

“I can tell you that word [or two] is not used down here,” McGahan said with steely gaze fixed upon his questioner. “It is not in the slightest. I don’t think we are even in a position to think about bonus points. We haven’t looked like getting them; we certainly have been there but we’ll just grind away and find a way to get the job done.”

There are obvious benefits to wrapping up qualification early, not least removing any pressure from an extremely difficult final-round trip to Milton Keynes next Saturday where a buoyant Saints side lie in wait, intent on avenging their Thomond Park heartbreak in the opening game. McGahan though, is refusing to look beyond this Castres game.

“I don’t know if we have the ability to look that far ahead for us and the way the campaign has been so far, as boring as it is, it is only the people involved from day to day recognise that I don’t have the ability to look too far ahead, that’s just where we are.

“Maybe other sides have that ability but we certainly don’t. All we need to do is focus on ourselves and be ready for 3.40 on Saturday.

“We recognise that if we get our job done there is a quarter-final place there and if we can assess and hopefully not be coming through with more injuries from the weekend and hopefully have a squad to go through to Northampton. How we prepare for that: we’ll deal with that when we come to it.”

A sensible outlook with so many teams in a variety of sports having been found guilty of eyeing an ultimate prize rather than focusing on the task at hand.

That should not happen to Munster today. The rustiness of their international contingent following a two-week rest enforced by the IRFU’s player management programme was shaken off last Saturday night in tough and physical workout against RaboDirect Pro12 rivals Treviso which, despite an error-strewn and disjointed display, garnered a bonus-point win and pushed the province back into the league play-off places.

McGahan sends out an unchanged line-up today and in many ways they went through the perfect tune up last weekend, not least in reminding us that Munster have not lost the formula for finding a way to win games even when not performing at their best.

Their current Heineken Cup campaign has, so far, been proof positive of that, reliant on a high intensity of commitment rather than a raised level of fluency and while the messages coming out of the camp suggest things are about to click into place, Munster supporters should perhaps brace themselves for another close-run encounter.

Munster to win, then, but be prepared to hang on to your hats one more time.

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