THERE IS NO more common fixture in Heineken Champions Cup rugby than this, but squint a little and you’ll see something strange about Castres Olympique. They finally look like a club who care about this tournament.
Traditionally, one might have looked at CO and felt round three was the ideal time to face them, with their interest in Europe thoroughly discouraged after shadow teams were handed hidings in the opening two fixtures.
With the Bouclier de Brennus safely stored in Stade Pierre-Fabre, Castres are proudly representing France and have allowed their focus to broaden, rather than concentrate solely on the Top14. Round one saw them lose narrowly to a slick piece of Danny Cipriani creativity. In round two, they met Exeter Chiefs head on at home and, despite being reduced to 14 men for 44 minutes, battled to a 29-25 win.
CJ Stander and Conor Murray at UL this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Tomorrow afternoon [kick-off 1pm, BT Sport] is a chance to make an irrefutable statement. Though they have made five changes on the back of a home defeat to Agen, it’s far from the Espoirs they have sent to Limerick and the presence of Scott Spedding with half-backs Benjamin Urdapilleta and Ludovic Radosavljevic ensure that Johann van Graan’s analysis hasn’t been time wasted.
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“I think they play quite differently to most French teams,” says the South African, “they are very structured in their kicking game, In my opinion quite a few teams have fallen into the trap of trying to play against them too much, you know? They use their nine and their 10 with their distant kicking game.”
Van Graan goes on to warn that Castres have improved and are fitter than the meetings last season (an away draw and home bonus point win for Munster) and reiterates his call not to overplay in attack.
“Some teams fall into the trap of fool’s gold against them and you do it at your own peril. That is why I said we have to be very specific in the way we approach them in the next two weeks because they do force a lot of errors.”
Set-piece first: Billy Holland and Johann van Graan take a look at line-out calls. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
But that’s more then sufficient talking-up of a team Munster have lost to only three times in a long history of meetings. Fans of the southern province should walk towards Cratloe Road with great confidence. Not only because they are in Thomond Park chasing an 11th straight European win at the venue, but because Van Graan’s team was positively humming last time out against Edinburgh and have CJ Stander and Joey Carbery to add to the mix.
Between Stander, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Carbery and his partnership with Conor Murray, Munster have a wealth of gamechangers at their disposal. This weekend’s starting XV would arguably only need the addition of Jean Kleyn to make it Munster’s strongest.
Perhaps the most exciting return, however, has been Chris Farrell. The Ulster native has reportedly been lighting up the GPS metrics for speed and power along his long road to recovery from a ruptured ACL. His barnstorming performance in Cork last Friday backed up the rumour. The 25-year-old’s power and distribution could prove key in giving Munster early breakthroughs to stop them chasing the ‘fool’s gold’ Van Graan warns of.
“He trained so well and we re-integrated him to training and as we came back from the Cheetahs game he just seemed pure class on the field,” says Van Graan.
Chris Farrell in training this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“He has some very specific objectives from our side on what he needs to improve on and the same from Joe (Schmidt’s) side, and I think it was evident over the weekend his strong points are most definitely there… there is still a lot more room for improvement, it’s brilliant to have him available for selection over the weekend.”
Room for improvement, but certainly nothing in the physical realm for Farrell.