The Tom Savage column: A trip to France is as tough as it gets for Munster's opener

The Tom Savage column: A trip to France is as tough as it gets for Munster's opener
Simon Zebo in high spirits at training but he faces a tough task in France on Sunday. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

IT'S a bit of a truism to say that there are no easy games in the current iteration of the Champions Cup but I’m going to say it anyway - there are no easy games in the Champions Cup anymore.

So if your default response is to scoff at Castres lack of named history (in Leicester’s case) or world-class names (in Racing 92’s case) and assume that this is a sure-fire win this weekend, you’re setting yourself up for an almighty land.

Our “easy” game in this pool - if you could call it that - will be playing Castres in Thomond Park next year. 

It would be fair to say that Castres are still very much in the “not bother away from home” stage of their development but when we play them in Castres this weekend, all bets are off. 

This will be a real challenge, but one that Munster have been preparing for.

French Fortress:

Castres currently lie 11th in the Top 14 but, as with most middle of the pack French sides, their home form is where you have to assess their danger. 

Away from home, they’ve lost all four games. 

At home, they’ve won two from three, with Clermont amongst their victims, and have only tasted defeat (so far) to a Montpellier side that’s a good bet to do the double this season. 

Basically, like most French sides in the Champions Cup - Castres away from home are a very different beast to Castres in the Stade Pierre-Antoine.

Munster can expect the usual here - a warm day, a passionate French crowd, a big opposition pack and a confrontation on a flat track. 

It certainly won’t be easy but, like I said, Munster have been preparing for this game and games like it.

The X Factor: 

Beating all but the very best French sides is a simple recipe. 

All rugby sides have three core principles that I judge them on.

Mental Application: How fired up will they be on the day?

Technical: What is their technical ability from a maul, scrum, lineout and phase play perspective?

Cardio: How likely are they start blowing black smoke after 60 minutes and/or five consecutive phases of hard defence?

The very best sides have all three qualities to elite levels - think the All Blacks - this week Castres will only have one of these qualities to a top level as far as I can see, based on the video I’ve watched of them this season - Mental Application. 

They will be fired up for this, for certain; the first game of the European season, and in front of their home fans on a Sunday? 

They won’t want for motivation.

Other than that, they seem to be an average technical side with a decent maul and, as you’d expect, a big scrum. 

Their phase play is quite narrow (although they do like a tight offload) and if you stop them around the fringes, they are vulnerable to a blitz from 13.

As for their cardio? 

It is, like most French sides, a little suspect.

So the recipe here should be to work them wide, get their pack moving ruck to ruck and then exploit the gaps that will appear two or three slots out from the ruck on phase three and four. 

On fifty minutes, their starting carry ability should drop and, with that, Munster should expect to take a dominant position in the game.

Writing it is easy, planning it is easier but executing on the pitch is another thing.

What Munster can’t do, is repeat the indiscipline that cost them vital territory, points and momentum against Leinster. 

If they can retain their discipline and, crucially, paint a picture of parity or, ideally, dominance in the scrum during the first half then it’s not inconceivable to come out of this one with a win. 

Maybe even a bonus point if things click in the attack as they so nearly managed this past weekend.

Personnel: 

To this end, squad selection will be the biggest question. 

Right now, Munster have a few positional questions. 

Will Kleyn be fit? Will Zebo be fit? 

Who partners Earls in the back three? 

Who plays at 10?

The other questions will be answered with who’s fit and available. 

The 10 question is a different story and with that story, comes a vital piece of the game this weekend. 

Each 10 currently has their own pros and cons. 

Keatley is, nominally, in the best form of the three but displayed some of the big game weaknesses against Leinster that plagued him two years ago - poor kicking, poor decisions and some bad line kicks and exits. 

Bleyendaal has the most cred in the bank but the General has been anything but commanding in his appearances so far this season. 

His goal kicking has been worryingly listless and he’s looked unsure of himself in key moments. 

Hanrahan has looked the most dangerous from an attacking perspective but has the least game time of the three, with only 30 minutes at 10 since his return from injury against Cardiff.

So who do you go with? 

Right now, I think it’ll be Bleyendaal with Hanrahan on the bench but who knows what Rassie will do. 

Whoever is picked will have to be rock solid on the basics and willing to play flat to gain line to work Castres in the way Munster will need to win. 

A big decision.

Either way, it’ll be worth watching.

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