Munster are heavily favoured to keep up their impressive winning record in this season’s Heineken Cup and secure their place in the last-eight when they host an out-of-sorts Castres Olympique side.
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 1: Saturday, January 14
MUNSTER (1st) v CASTRES OLYMPIQUE (4th), Thomond Park, 3.40pm (live Sky Sports 1/HD1)
Team News: Munster head coach Tony McGahan has kept faith with the same squad that delivered the bonus point win over Benetton Treviso, as they resume their Heineken Cup run against Castres Olympique at Thomond Park this Saturday.
The one area that would have caused the Munster management to ponder would have been the second row and whether to start Donnacha Ryan or Donncha O’Callaghan, who made such an impression when he came on as a replacement against Benetton Treviso.
But Ryan has again got the nod to partner skipper Paul O’Connell who took little part in the pitch sessions this week as he nursed a gash on his knee.
Flanker Niall Ronan, who injured his knee against the Italians, was another on the easy list although he did train today in Musgrave Park.
From Munster’s point of view, it is solely a question of getting the win they know will edge them closer to a place in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
Depending on how things go in the Scarlets v Northampton match in in Llanelli, a victory on Saturday could secure qualification for Munster before they have to go to Milton Keynes.
If Munster win and the Scarlets lose, or if the Scarlets win without the bonus point, then Tony McGahan’s men are through to the quarter-finals.
But Ronan accepts that as things stand, they are guaranteed nothing yet. “Of course the expectation is there among the supporters. We’re at home, top of the group and all that,” he said.
“But we know we still have to put in a performance. We don’t know what sort of side they’ll send over but we do know they’re not going to come over and roll over.
“And it Castres get momentum and get their tails up, we know what they’re capable of doing.”
Meanwhile, Castres Olympique will field a team missing a number of their leading lights when they line up against the current pool leaders.
New Zealander Chris Masoe, their hugely influential captain, is the most notable absentee from their chosen side, along with top points scorer Romain Teulet, Luc Ducalcon, Joe Tekori and Max Evans.
Of the team that went close to beating Munster at home back in November, there are only seven survivors – three of them are in the pack in the form of prop Anton Peikrishviki and back rowers Yannick Caballero and Jannie Bornman.
The back-line has a more tried and trusted feel to it with Paul Bonnefond partnering Pierre Manuel Garcia once again in the centre, and half-backs Pierre Bernard and Thierry Lacrampe also paired together.
Out of the qualifying race, Castres have only managed one win so far in Pool 1 and only have pride to play for over the two concluding rounds.
MUNSTER: Denis Hurley; Johne Murphy, Keith Earls, Lifeimi Mafi, Simon Zebo; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Peter O’Mahony, Niall Ronan, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Denis Fogarty, Marcus Horan, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Billy Holland, Tomas O’Leary, Ian Keatley, Danny Barnes.
CASTRES OLYMPIQUE: Romain Martial; Vincent Inigo, Paul Bonnefond, Pierre-Manuel Garcia, Pierre-Gilles Lakafia; Pierre Bernard, Thierry Lacrampe; Saimone Taumoepeau, Marc-Antoine Rallier, Anton Peikrishvili, Matthias Rolland (capt), Rodrigo Capo Ortega, Yannick Caballero, Steve Malonga, Jannie Bornman.
Replacements: Mathieu Bonello, Michaël Coetzee, Karena Wihongi, Scott Murray, Ibrahim Diarra, Rory Kockott, Seremaia Bai, Matthieu Nicolas.
Referee: Andrew Small (England)
Assistant Referees: Tim Wigglesworth, Roy Maybank (both England)
Television Match Official: Trevor Fisher (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Munster to win: 1/25; Draw: 40/1; Scarlets to win: 12/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Damien Varley (Munster) – “Last season was very disappointing from a Heineken Cup perspective and at the start of the season we vowed to better ourselves and go on and win it this year.
“We have won four out of four in our pool to date and although we know we aren’t winning well, we have at least put ourselves in a good position to qualify with two games to go.
“We’ve put a lot of work in up front this season and I think we are a real force to be reckoned with at the set pieces.
“The arrival of BJ Botha has added more strength up front and we are a physical side capable of putting real pressure on teams.
“We know Castres will come with a point to prove after the way we beat them with a Ronan O’Gara drop goal in injury-time and it will be the same when we go to face Northampton Saints next week.
“We all know there are two tough games to come and from a psychological point of view, we want to keep on winning to maintain our momentum.”
Paul O’Connell (Munster) – “Castres are a very good side. They’ve a very good lineout, very hard to analyse with lots of variations. I’d know Scott Murray very well and he’s excellent.
“They’ve a very good scrum as well, we’d a tough, tough battle against them over there. They’ve scored some great tries as well.
“They scored early on against us and were 11-0 up early on so they can hurt you if you’re not on your form. It’s hard to know what Castres will turn up. They’re fourth in the league.
“Looking at their game against Stade (Francais), they scored some good tries but were losing heavily early on. They’d a really tough game when they beat Perpignan. They’ll be tough (to beat).
“It’s not like we’re in a position where we’ve been completely dominating teams, that we feel we can give that a thought. We can’t afford to think that way at all.
“It hasn’t been mentioned and guys are very wary of it. There have been plenty of incidents down the years when you think you might have an easier game on paper. But that’s not the case within this camp.
“Obviously Northampton away the following week is going to be tough as well. So we’re just going to keep fighting as hard as we can for everything we can get in this group. If we can get the win by any margin I’ll be happy.”
Current Form – Munster – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 20-12 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 23-12 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 35-12 at home to the Scarlets; Won 18-13 away to the Cardiff Blues; Lost 29-14 away to Edinburgh; Lost 17-13 at home to the Ospreys; Won 18-6 at home to Aironi Rugby; Lost 24-19 away to Leinster; (Heineken Cup): Won 23-21 at home to Northampton Saints; Won 27-24 away to Castres Olympique; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 34-17 at home to Edinburgh; Lost 19-13 away to the Ospreys; (Heineken Cup): Won 17-14 away to the Scarlets; Won 19-13 at home to the Scarlets; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 24-9 at home to Connacht; Lost 33-17 away to Ulster; Won 29-11 at home to Benetton Treviso
Castres Olympique – (Top 14 Championship): Lost 25-6 away to Perpignan; Won 35-10 at home to Stade Francais; Won 23-18 away to Biarritz Olympique; Won 30-11 at home to Agen; Won 30-24 at home to Brive; Won 18-16 away to Lyon; Won 24-3 at home to Toulouse; Won 21-16 at home to Montpellier; Lost 23-19 at home to Racing Metro 92; Lost 24-9 away to Bordeaux-Begles; (Heineken Cup): Lost 31-23 away to the Scarlets; Lost 27-24 at home to Munster; (Top 14 Championship): Drew 22-22 at home to Toulon; Lost 33-16 away to Clermont Auvergne; (Heineken Cup): Won 41-22 at home to Northampton Saints; Lost 45-0 away to Northampton Saints; (Top 14 Championship): Drew 16-16 away to Bayonne; Won 33-6 at home to Perpignan; Lost 38-21 away to Stade Francais
Top Scorers – 2011/12 Heineken Cup: Munster – Points: Ronan O’Gara 51; Tries: Doug Howlett 2; Castres Olympique – Points: Romain Teulet 34; Tries: Romain Martial 2
Previous European Meetings: 11
Saturday, November 19, 2011 – Pool 1 – Castres Olympique 24 Munster 27, Stade Ernest Wallon
Friday, January 13, 2006 – Pool 1 – Castres Olympique 9 Munster 46, Stade Pierre Antoine
Saturday, October 29, 2005 – Pool 1 – Munster 42 Castres Olympique 16, Thomond Park
Saturday, December 11, 2004 – Pool 4 – Munster 36 Castres Olympique 8, Thomond Park
Friday, December 3, 2004 – Pool 4 – Castres Olympique 19 Munster 12, Stade Pierre Antoine
Saturday, April 27, 2002 – Semi-final – Castres Olympique 17 Munster 25, Stade de la Méditerranée
Saturday, January 12, 2002 – Pool 4 – Castres Olympique 21 Munster 13, Stade Pierre Antoine
Saturday, September 29, 2001 – Pool 4 – Munster 28 Castres Olympique 23, Thomond Park
Saturday, January 20, 2001 – Pool 4 – Munster 21 Castres Olympique 11, Musgrave Park
Saturday, October 14, 2000 – Pool 4 – Castres Olympique 29 Munster 32, Stade Pierre Antoine
Wednesday, November 8, 1995 – Pool D – Castres Olympique 19 Munster 12, Stade Antoine Beguere
Heineken Cup Records:
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
2008/09: Reached the semi-finals
2006/07: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Reached the semi-finals
2002/03: Reached the semi-finals
2000/01: Reached the semi-finals
1998/99: Reached the quarter-finals
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool D
Castres Olympique –
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2001/02: Reached the semi-finals
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool D