On Saturday night, I enjoyed the merriment of a European Cup night in Thomond Park for the first time since I left the club almost four years ago.
European nights in Thomond are special, and despite the fact there wasn’t the sellout crowd, you would hope to have greeting a travelling French side as they walk down the tunnel, the 21,000 or so fans that were there gave the players a good reminder of what it’s like to play in front of a vocal home support, in full swing.
Unfortunately, that was the last time it will happen for some time. Attendances being capped at 5,000 under new Covid restrictions will see Munster having to refund 21,000 tickets for the annual Stephen’s Day clash against Leinster. A back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me this will cost the club around €800,000 to €1m — a devastating financial blow.
That’s the kind of money that would allow you to replace two departing World Cup winners with players of equal quality. A well placed source tells me Tom Daly could be on his way south from Connacht to replace Damian de Allende, who is expected to be on his way next summer. Daly is an excellent player who has had a new lease of life at Connacht but objectively speaking, it’s fair to say he’s not in the same category as de Allende just yet.
If the news is true, it indicates one of two things: either the money isn’t there to go big with signings in the market this year, or the money is going to be thrown at securing world-class players elsewhere on the pitch. Both options make interesting food for thought.
Much like the ticketing situation for the Leinster game, the match against Castres was a messy affair. It was always going to be hard to follow the heroics of the display against Wasps with a comparable performance, but this was what commentators like to call ‘one for the purists’. In other words, it wasn’t terribly entertaining to watch.
Though it’s never something you publicly acknowledge in the build up to a game, Munster would have been targeting five points on Saturday. That would have put them in a commanding position, particularly now that the EPCR have made it clear that bonus point wins are likely to be handed out immediately where one team has to withdraw from a game due to Covid cases, as Leinster so bitterly learned in recent days.
The team sent over by Castres was very much a second string side. That doesn’t always translate into an easy ride, as players that are getting a rare opportunity to show their ability do everything in their power to make a good impression on the coaches. This is particularly so for mid-table French sides, who often use their European outings as a high level equivalent of what the old British & Irish Cup was for Irish provinces.
It’s a difficult thing for Irish fans to get their heads around, but unless you’re a big-money club that is confident it can have a decent run at winning the trophy, French teams tend to treat their European obligations — especially away from home — as an inconvenience.
A good illustration of this was Castres out-half Benjamin Urdapilleta’s decision to put the ball out of play when the clock entered the red, despite his side being just six points behind, having seen the momentum swing to their side in the previous 10 minutes. He didn’t have any interest in carrying on, and wanted to get off that pitch.
Castres are one of the few remaining ‘old school’ teams in French rugby. They are known for playing conservatively, dragging teams into a dog fight and honestly, for dancing on the line between hard and dirty. In Europe, you can’t get away with the dark arts you can engage in at the bottom of rucks in France, but Castres still did what they could to make the game an arm wrestle for periods, disrupting Munster’s momentum.
The home side were always in control but had to work hard for their scores. The Castres attack wasn’t going to set Limerick alight, but they were solid in defence and presented their opponents with little in the way of line breaks and try-scoring opportunities.
When Jack O’Donoghue crashed over in the corner in the 58th minute, you had the sense the floodgates might open and the tries would start coming with more ease. To Castres’ credit, they stuck to their guns and continued to marshal well in defence, eventually clawing their way back into contention and making the closing period a nervous one for the Munster coaching box.
This was a good result for Munster. Sure, five points would have been nice, but opening their European campaign with two wins from two and nine points out of a possible 10 is a good return, whatever way you look at it. Johann van Graan stated after the game that he was happy to win ugly. And in the depths of winter, you’re going to have to win ugly sometimes.
Most encouraging were the performances of the less experienced cohort for the second week in a row. Patrick Campbell looked perfectly comfortable once again, both physically and technically. John Hodnett took another step towards being a fixture in the Munster 23 in years to come.
Above all else, the accuracy and composure shown by cool-as-you-like Ben Healy will have done a lot to reassure Munster’s support that facing into a spell without a Joey Carbery that was returning to his best need not be as daunting as it might have felt. Ben hardly put a foot wrong all night — out of hand and off the tee — and he looked so at ease in a backline full of seasoned internationals, that you feel this might be his real window of opportunity to stake his claim to become the owner of the 10 jersey.
As always, the test of where Munster are at in a given season comes when they line out against a full strength Leinster side. The recent outbreak of Covid cases in the blue camp might end up ruling certain people out of selection for the clash on St Stephen’s Day, but as it stands, we can be hopeful both clubs will have close to a full complement to choose from.
The return of Gavin Coombes, Stephen Archer, and Simon Zebo to camp will inject some more form and experience into preparations and for Zebo in particular, this is the kind of big occasion that he loves and was brought back home to have game defining moments in.
Interprovincial derbies are the closest thing we get to trial matches for the national side these days, and there are plenty of familiar and less familiar faces that need strong performances to ensure their place in Andy Farrell’s squad for the Six Nations campaign.
Whether the Champions Cup will end up running as scheduled in rounds three and four remains to be seen. Munster can’t control that, and can only focus on performing when they get the opportunity to do so. After the last couple of weeks, I’d say there is plenty of quiet optimism internally that things are starting to look pretty good as the calendar year draws to a close.