An early test for Jack Crowley as physical battle expected in France

A tricky assignment against such familiar and gritty opponents awaits Munster

Champions Cup: Castres v Munster, Friday January 14th, Stade Pierre Fabre (kick-off 8pm/9pm local time, live on BT Sport).

Missing Ben Healy as well as Joey Carbery, not to mention their two World Cup winning South Africans, Munster have a more callow look to them than their supporters would have wanted for a tricky assignment against such familiar and gritty opponents.

The pandemic has contributed to Jack Crowley having little exposure with Munster over the last two seasons, but after just seven outings in total the gifted young outhalf - who turned 22 yesterday - is pitched into his full European debut in what will be just his third start for the province.

This is the biggest game of his fledgling career to date and another 22-year-old promoted from the academy during the summer, Jake Flannery, will provide back-up off the bench for what could be his first taste of European rugby after just four appearances so far.

Helpfully, captain Peter O'Mahony returns after sustaining a leg strain in the warm-up before last week's win over Ulster, with Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Jack O'Donoghue also coming back into the side. Tadhg Beirne, outstanding in last week's win over Ulster, reverts from flanker to lock, meaning the fit-again Jean Kleyn is on the bench.


Castres have only made the knock-out stages once in 15 previous attempts, and that was as long ago as 2002 when they were beaten in the semi-finals by Munster in Beziers.

They retain only two of the starting XV from last week’s domestic win at home to Stade Francais, fit-again outhalf Ben Botica and centre Thomas Combezou, who is one of 15 from the matchday 23 at Thomond Park last month in Friday night’s squad. There is no place for the tight five who started the intervening three Top 14 wins, for example, nor their Fijian game breakers, centre Vilimini Botitu and flanker cum winger Josaia Raisuque.

Once again then, they appear to be prioritising the Top 14 - where they sit third after four consecutive wins - but that hasn’t stopped them maintaining solid European form at home over recent years, including a draw and a one-point win against Munster.

No teams have met more often in this competition and we know what they say familiarity breeds. The last meeting a month ago wasn’t that bad-tempered, but there was a spiteful undercurrent when Munster were beaten 13-12 on their last trek here three seasons ago.

Despite the presence of Wayne Barnes, who did not have one of his better games, there were off the ball incidents aplenty as Castres reduced the match to something of a scrap. Hence, discipline and the role of Luke Pearce is likely to have a big bearing on the outcome.

“We’ve got incredible respect for them as a club,” maintained Johann van Graan diplomatically this week. “They’re an incredibly proud club when they play at home and their physicality is a non-negotiable to them. We’ve been in some epic battles with them. The last game there, there were some big incidents off the ball.

“It will definitely be a physical battle. The maul, the scrum, the breakdown, the way they use their ‘9s’ in phase play from a defensive point of you, chasing your ‘9s’. They are very comfortable with the way they play. They don’t play a lot of rugby in their own half. They kind of invite you to play in your own half.

“So we will have to be very disciplined, not only with our actions but our game discipline because a lot of teams have gone there and lost the plot. So it’s very simple, we will have to be at our best to get a result there.”

Munster do hold a 12-1-4 head-to-head record over Castres but have won only three times in their eight visits to the Stade Pierre Fabre. Two of those were three-point margins.

Social distancing

While Castres are not fielding their strongest side for sure, they did extract a second losing bonus point in Thomond Park and knowing that a win will leave them well placed, this side will give it a go and show Munster no respect. The attendance is restricted to 5,000, but this was true last week when they beat Stade Francais in a tryless affair and the home crowd were compressed in one side of the ground to maximise the atmosphere, albeit this hardly complied with social distancing.

A week before they scored some sparkling tries in recovering from a 24-3 deficit after 25 minutes against La Rochelle, albeit they were indebted to Ihaia West missing a routine penalty with the last kick, but this is unlikely to be beautiful. It rarely is between these two and, as van Graan has anticipated, it’s liable to be a close affair again.

That won’t bother Castres. They tend to thrive in tight endgames. Three of their domestic wins this season have been by a point, in addition to a draw, along with four-point and six-point wins. All were at home, where they haven’t lost in the Top 14 since December 2020, even if they did see a nine-game unbeaten home run in Europe come to an end when extending Premiership champions Harlequins beat them 20-18 in round one.

In light of all this, Munster make little appeal at the odds, not least on a handicap of minus 10 points, but the Champions Cup usually inspires them to pull out a big performance and defy the doubters.

CASTRES OLYMPIQUE: Thomas Larregain; Antoine Zeghdar, Thomas Combezou, Pierre Aguillon, Filipo Nakosi; Ben Botica, Santiago Arata Perrone; Antoine Tichit, Brice Humbert, Antoine Guillamon; Loic Jacquet (capt), Jack Whetton; Mateaki Kafatolu, Simon Meka, Baptiste Delaporte.

Replacements: Pierre Colonna, Julius Nostadt, Matthew Tierney, Ryno Pieterse, Hugo Hermet, Rory Kockott, Louis Le Brun, Bastien Guillemin.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Jack Crowley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Fineen Wycherley, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Jack O'Donoghue, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, John Hodnett, Craig Casey, Jake Flannery, Shane Daly.

Referee: Luke Pearce (England)

Head to head: Pl 17, Munster 12 wins, 1 draw, Castres 4 wins.

Betting: (Paddy Power): 7/2 Castres, 20/1 Draw, 2/9 Munster. Handicap odds (Castres + 10 pts), 4/5 Castres, 19/1 Draw, Evens Munster.

Forecast: Munster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times