The Tom Savage column: A draw in France might turn out to be a great result for Munster

The Tom Savage column: A draw in France might turn out to be a great result for Munster
Simon Zebo is tackled hard. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

IN January, these two points garnered in the south of France may well seem like a net positive for Munster but in the direct aftermath of a nervy, sloppy performance like this, let’s call these two points what they are; two points stolen.

In some way, Munster’s conscience seemed to prickle them into trying to hand all four match points to Castres in the last five minutes. 

That seems to be the only plausible way to explain the headless penalty conceded by Dave Kilcoyne within sniffing distance of the posts in the last five minutes and the penalty Robin Copeland should have given away against a few minutes later. 

Castres couldn’t capitalise on the penalty and then scrum awarded and the final whistle came as sweet relief to the southern province.

So what happened?

First of all, let’s put this draw in context.  The last time Castres played European Rugby in this stadium, they drew 24-24 against a mightily relieved Leinster side so, in one way, we shouldn’t be too shocked at the intensity of Castres’ performance.

As I wrote pre-game, this is probably the worst time to take on a side like Castres at home. This game is probably the one game where they wouldn’t have to mentally square away any Top14 concerns and they played with the freedom and physicality that implies.

From a Munster perspective, there was a way to win this game - pace on the ball, accuracy at the breakdown and direction from 10 - but there was precious little of any on show when the game was settling in. 

Early on, Munster just couldn’t get hands on the ball and that invited phase after phase of heavy Castres possession. Yes, Munster’s defence held up to that examination but it produced a yellow card from Conor Murray and almost the same for Simon Zebo a few minutes later. 

Good maul defence would see Munster escape the hairy situation landed by the sin bin but a frantic reaction from Chris Farrell at first receiver on a nothing phase would see Castres striding under the Munster posts after an intercepted pass. 

It was was nervy, more than a little muddled and symptomatic of much of Munster’s work in this game.

Munster rallied, equalized through the excellent Simon Zebo and then allowed Castres a route back into the game by ceding momentum through a series of aerial misjudgements, spills and indiscipline.

The wind played a factor, of course. A manic breeze whipped over the top of the stadium and snatched any ball that went above the blue roof of the Stade Pierre-Antoine. That directly affected a lot of Munster’s exits in the first half and, concerningly, a lot of their attempted work with the ball in the second.

Even with these frustrations, Munster found themselves with a 17-14 lead in the second half but a combination of handling errors, poor decisions and literally giving Castres every opportunity to catch their breath saw the French side get back into the game and stay there until the final whistle.

Gas The way to beat Castres was simple enough in principle, if not execution. First up, stop them in the scrum and maul - Munster were quite successful here. Second up, they had to work Castres in phase play to gas them out and create space on phase three, four or five. 

It’s here that Munster failed - and quite spectacularly. Yes, we can look at Farrell’s intercept and a few errors from Murray but for me, a lot of this comes down to our lack of direction at 10. It’s here - at fly half - that we seem least comfortable with our attacking pattern. 

It’s from 10 that the pace of Munster’s ball slowed and from 10 that our lines and attacking patterns never quite seemed to materialise. 

That was evident enough here when Munster’s attempt at high tempo became an uncontrollable twenty three skiddoo. 

A lot of this is down to the decision making and depth from the gainline that Bleyendaal and then Keatley after him. 

This will need to be addressed if Munster’s attacking game is to evolve beyond the mismatched beast it is at the moment. 

That isn’t to say that the pack was great either; it was a fairly poor performance from the back five that largely undid the hard yards won by the excellent front row.

Overall, it’s probably sensible to stow the two points, hope our rivals don’t beat it, and move on to the looming shadow of Racing 92 in the Big House next week.

 All to play for.

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