Battle of Castres Reflections

Lack of composure the prevailing theme 

Castres inflicted a first loss to Munster Rugby in Europe this season. A solitary point (13-12) between the two sides after an extremely physical, feisty and at times cynical contest. The prevailing word after watching the rerun of this contest was ‘composure’ or more to the point lack of for the two sides and officiating crew on duty. 

Munster Rugby weak points utterly exposed 

The pregame notes from Munster Rugby before this round four fixture was that the team would improve their attacking precision and accuracy in the set piece. This optimism was unfortunately misplaced as Munster Rugby produced another inconsistent performance with the ball while the line out continued to struggle all ends up. 

Emotions run high as accuracy suffers

An occasion which was guaranteed to be feisty given the round three contest six days prior, Munster Rugby fell into the trap of engaging with a side who were content in stifling by any means possible. The physical confrontation saw Munster Rugby composure ditched at the team hotel and an arm wrestle ensued. Given the experience in the starting lineup, it was a surprise to see the team struggle in this facet of play. 

The emotional dimension to the contest saw Munster Rugby indiscipline surface at regular times. The lead up to the opening Castres penalty score was a coaching killer. Niall Scannell pinged for a late hit on Urdapilleta. It set the tone for the rest of the contest as the visitors continued to flounder with ball in hand. 

Team Selection causing squad morale issues? 

Team selection in Munster Rugby once upon a time was based on player form and the mantra that a player had to earn his starting berth. What JJ Hanrahan must have thought at the start of last week when told that despite his man of the match performance in round three, that he would have to make do with a place on the subs bench? It would make you think of what other fringe players in the squad are thinking going forward and has the recipe to unsettle the first team squad as the season progresses. 

Kicking off the tee woes continue

Joey Carbery had an indifferent game, not helped by a distinct lack of game time with the province in recent weeks. A solid opening penalty kick suggested that the number ten would have a standout game but unfortunately for Munster Rugby, his kicking thereafter from the tee was hit and miss. Carbery was subject to a heavy hit early in the contest, just wondering if there was any after effects thereafter? Murray was also off target with a long distance penalty in the second half. The kicking off the tee statistics this season has being poor and continues the trend from last season where Munster Rugby were bottom in Pro 14 successful kick conversion rate. 

Munster Rugby Attacking Game Plan?

The attacking game plan under van Graan has being quite difficult to understand this season. Is the game plan pack orientated or not? The sight of Chris Cloete as first receiver and play maker last weekend did nothing to unsettle Castres.

It was again left to Conor Murray to force the attacking play as Carbery’s involvement in attacking move was stifled. The threat from the three quarters was frustrating minimal; not helped by stifling slow ruck ball and incisive passing. It meant that the likes of Conway and Earls were starved of quality possession to impress.

Mike Haley has being solid at full back but there are clear cohesion issues when he hits the line. Haley looking for offloading options but lack of support runners when the full back has the ball has being noticeable in recent weeks. What is the attacking game plan and identity of this Munster Rugby side? It appears to be inconclusive this season.

Line out issues hurting Munster platform creation

Line out woes continued this weekend. For the number of options at Munster Rugby’s disposal, the set piece misfired at an alarming rate of knots. Under throws, indecisive line out starting positions were the flavor of the day from Munster Rugby who were unable to successfully setup the platform from this set piece. The Castres line out was by and large dominant and their maul came to the fore in the third quarter resulting in the Niall Scannell yellow card. 

Scrum is a crumb of comfort

The scrum was fascinating to watch. Munster Rugby on reflection will be happy with this facet of play from their starting lineup. John Ryan continues to impress; his scrummaging was superb. Dave Kilcoyne also had good moments in the scrum as well as abrasive ball carries. The squad depth was exposed though as Loughman went backwards on the final scrum. 

Castres – Limited game plan works 

The French side were up for this contest. The feisty exchanges at Thomond Park last weekend set the backdrop and yesterday’s fixture continued in the same vain. It was a limited game plan executed by Castres but they fed off Munster Rugby inaccuracy throughout. With each passing visitor knock on or penalty win, you could see the belief in the Castres team soar. 

The tactics also were quite cynical at times. The eye gouging incident on Cloete was dangerous in the opening period. There was a couple of off the ball incidents as well and the incident where Peter O’Mahony was launched into the air before Andrew Conway’s try scoring opportunity should have merited more action from Wayne Barnes. There was an edge to the encounter and the officiating crew on both match days failed to command the contest. 

Officiating Crew Struggle

The officiating crew assessor report on this fixture will be interesting reading. The TMO performance fell well short of what is expected in this competition. Wayne Barnes’ direct communication to Rowan Kitt for the Castres try exposed a shaky response from the official upstairs.

The TV angles for the try looked inconclusive but Kitt forced to give an answer from a clearly impatient Barnes awarded the try. When Peter O’Mahony reported the eye gouging incident, the officiating crew seemed indifferent to the accusation. The subsequent replays do not look good for Rory Kockott and one would wonder what the TMO was looking at. 

The touch judges on duty did not want to get involved in calling key off the ball incidents. Wayne Barnes was exposed by his officiating crew and at times, Barnes needed eyes at the back of his head to figure out what was going on. Paul Dix literally was a foot away from a Castres player who decided to kick Sam Arnold on the touchline; no action. 

The officiating standard in these Munster Rugby December fixtures have left plenty to be desired. The lack of offside calls, the breakdown mess all added to a disorganized fixture. The sheer lack of consistency by different officiating crews from different countries in rounds three and four of this competition is a serious issue for the EPCR to address going forward. 

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 30 – 5 Castres

Murray creativity key
Windswept Thomond Park

Munster Rugby are three points clear in Pool 2 after a three try second half performance over a hard working but limited Castres outfit at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was at the Limerick venue and provides his thoughts on proceedings. 

Late scratches force Munster into squad reshuffle

The day started with excitement and optimism for Munster Rugby supporters heading to Thomond Park for this European Cup fixture; a fixture to see the debut of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery half-back partnership as well as Chris Farrell who was in superb form last weekend.

As the fans started to arrive to the hallowed rugby venue, it soon emerged that Carbery would play no part in the contest (hamstring) and after a lengthy consultation with medical staff during team warm ups, Chris Farrell was also forced to sit this fixture out. 

Two key personnel withdrawals for the Irish province but in JJ Hanrahan and Sam Arnold, the side still look loaded with talent and creativity to execute an efficient attacking game plan. Tyler Bleyendaal and Jaco Taute were called into the match day squad and the training drills pregame were executed in a heavy torrential downpour, the visibility reducing with each passing minute.

Tricky weather conditions leads to unforced errors 

The windy conditions were extremely tricky for both sides. The opening exchanges typified with the visitors unable to deal with Murray’s first three box kicks given the cross field breeze at play.

Munster Rugby as well were struggling with the conditions as well as Mike Haley kicked out in the full early doors. The game looked for all intensive purposes to be a pack arm wrestle early doors. 

The pack battle was fascinating in that opening period. Munster Rugby with John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne prominent in the scrum set piece were winning penalties and setting the attacking foundation for the side. JJ Hanrahan was presented with a regulation three pointer to open the scoring in the first ten minutes of the contest. 

Munster Rugby were looking to create a high tempo game but Castres were resolute in defensive duties and their breakdown work at times stifled the hosts ability to create quick ruck ball.

The line out exchanges ebbed and flowed in the windy conditions. Munster Rugby resorting to the long throw at the back of the line out more than once which did not have the desired effect. The line out was shaky at best for the hosts and with it squandered several opening period opportunities. 

Munster Rugby forcing the play too much

 The second quarter was all Munster Rugby; predominantly camped in the Castres 22 but there was a lack of composure in the attacking lines from the hosts; forcing passes which were not on due to the weather conditions and the back line running lines were at times ponderous and static with minimal supporting runners.

The passage of play whereby Conor Murray realizing that Castres had over committed players to the left hand side switched play but there was a total breakdown in communications with Tadhg Beirne who knocked on. It summed up the host’s lack of precision with ball in hand.

Castres were happy to hit the dressing rooms at half-time only 6-0 down. JJ Hanrahan slotting over another close range penalty after good play from the Munster pack in the second quarter. All Munster Rugby dominance but the pressure built up not yielding the desired points on the board. 

Sharp start to the second half from Munster Rugby 

With management instructions ringing in their ears, Munster Rugby started the second half with renewed tempo and vigor putting pressure on Castres to force a series of scrums just on the Castres 22. Murray to the fore as his line break saw a deft offload to Rory Scannell to crash over. JJ Hanrahan slotting over the extras and the game was out to a thirteen point lead. 

Castres offered a lifeline but fail to take 

Immediately after the concession of the opening try, Castres rumbled into life and were rewarded a penalty which was missed but Murray knocked on in the dead goal area. Castres with a five meter scrum but the resultant ball carries were utterly dismissed by the hosts. Beirne prominent as Castres lost possession on the Munster Rugby 22′. The box kick clearance from Conor Murray marked the end of the contest as Castres again needed to put in the tackle count as Munster Rugby started to probe further. 

Munster Rugby start to create line breaks 

More quality work from Conor Murray setup the second Munster Rugby try of the afternoon; created space inside for CJ Stander to cross over the try line. The score settled Munster Rugby nerves to a certain extent and more good pack pressure resulting in JJ Hanrahan slotting three points to make the score 23-0. The game was over as a contest. The key question was whether Munster Rugby could score an additional two tries in the last fifteen minutes?

The third try arrived with around five minutes left in the contest and it was probably the best move Munster Rugby conjured up in the whole contest. Superb line break and offload from Arnold to Scannell, Scannell to Mathewson who then setup Hanrahan away for the third try. 30-0 as JJ Hanrahan kicked the regulation conversion.

Bonus Point is elusive 

If the Munster Rugby faithful were thinking of a late bonus point try, it was quickly snuffed out as JP Doyle was central to a baffling officiating decision. Andrew Conway was adjudged to have taken a Castres player out before receiving the ball just five meters from the Munster Rugby try line. A dead cert penalty try but Doyle botched the call and gave Castres a penalty instead. A penalty try would have seen Munster Rugby restarting and more than likely securing field position for a possible bonus point try. Oh well! 

Castres’ pack mauled the ball to within ten meters of the line and then decided to launch the ball wide and resulting in a try out in the corner despite the best efforts of JJ Hanrahan. 30-5. Full Time. The bonus point not secured and whether this proves to be a missed opportunity, we won’t know until January 19th. 

Thoughts 

The officiating at times descended into anarchy. Doyle lost control of this fixture in the opening period; no repercussions for Castres at the scrum as Munster Rugby dominated and won a series of scrum penalties. The players decided then to settle old scores and a couple of flash points ensued. The Conway decision summed up a bad day in the office for the officiating crew; it was an easy call. If Conway was getting yellow, then surely it implied preventing a certain try. Penalty try. Castres fans were scratching their heads like the home faithful. 

Munster Rugby adapted to the late personnel scratches but there was a nervousness in their attacking play. There was precious line breaks in the opening period and the line out malfunctioned at a rate of knots. Cleote acting as first receiver had mixed result; ball was potentially a little delayed and did not provide colleagues with the time and space to impress. Cleote and Beirne in breakdown work were on point. 

A reality check for Munster Rugby in their attacking play. Defense was solid if not overly stretched to breaking point such was the limited ball that Castres had in the Munster Rugby 22′. The mission is clear for Munster Rugby; a road trip series against Castres and Gloucester Rugby will determine their European Cup ambitions. Roll on next weekend! 

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 2

Munster under pressure

An interesting pool awaits in pool two with intense pack battles the order of the day with Munster Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester Rugby and Castres in the mix. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the pool and has genuine concerns about Munster Rugby this season. 

Munster Rugby vulnerable?

When you consider Munster Rugby’s season so far, it reads played six; won three (all at home), lost three (all away). The road trip performances have seen the Irish province leak thirty plus points and there is no quick fix in terms of the defensive issues seen so far. The scrum half injury crisis could be a decisive blow as well with star player Conor Murray not in contention to play in the competition’s first two rounds at least. The home form will need to be on point to progress but nothing will be taken for granted. 

Exeter Chiefs look best equipped to take advantage of Munster Rugby vulnerability. Their imposing pack has being their foundation and their ability to turn penalty count to tries using their marauding maul is a source of great concern for their pool opponents. Exeter Chiefs under Rob Baxter have also evolved their game plan with Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Alex Cuthbert resulting in some very impressive score tallies. The home form in Sandy Park will be strong; question mark on the road trip form which did lag last season so an interesting subplot. 

Gloucester Rugby make a welcome return to the competition; an incredible rugby town and knowledgeable rugby support. The Shed will be hopping for this tournament. Gloucester Rugby are evolving into a very competitive side; their expansive play seen to full effect last season and with their acquisition of Danny Ciprani, the attacking options are endless with an extremely pacy back three (Marshall, Trinder, Sharples). A team which has recruited well in the pack with a strong South African influence. Grobler at lock has all the attributes to be a sensational signing. A team to be feared and their home opener against Castres will gauge morale and confidence of pool progression here. 

Castres. The great enigma of European Cup competition. When they are interested (more than likely at home), they can cause massive issues for travelling teams but their policy of fielding below strength sides on the road will mean that the French Top 14 kingpins will languish in the mid-pack. An opportunity perhaps for the other pool teams to secure five points in their home games? 

Verdict:

The hope is that we will see some exciting contests but who am I kidding, the arm wrestle games will be a key theme and start with the Exeter Chiefs home opener against Munster Rugby. Potentially two teams to advance from this group given that Castres may travel light on the road. Munster Rugby look vulnerable here and suspect a last round miracle may be required to advance as a pool runner up. Exeter Chiefs for me look the form side in this pool. Plenty of twists and turns in this pool.