Castres take on Leinster with weight of world on shoulders
It’s been miserable season for French side after disintregration of title-winning team
Castres interntaional outhalf and captain Rémi Talès who at the end of this season will join the exodus of key players from the club. Photograph: Remy Gabalda/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Kerouac once observed “great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends, fads and popular opinion”.
The French club has nothing to lose at this point because they’re unencumbered by expectation, that hope long abandoned on foot of abject performances in the pool, with the exception of a gritty, dogged effort in defeat against Leinster at the Stade Pierre Antoine. It must be considered an aberration when weighed against the main body of evidence.
Castres have dabbled in Europe this season, absentminded rather than focused, distracted no doubt by their travails in the French Top 14 Championship, a tournament they won in 2013 and one in which they finished runners-up when Toulon exacted their revenge in the final last season.
Plummeting to the bottom of the table of the Top 14, where they languished for large parts of pre-Christmas period, European rugby offered no respite from the gloom both on and off the pitch.
Struggled from get-goAntonie ClaassenAnton PeikrishviliBrice DulinLaurent LabitLaurent Travers
Romain Teulet, an important character in the dressingroom who through injury played a limited part in his final season, retired.
Their budget of €19 million is dwarfed by that of, say, Toulouse, but coaches Serge Milhas and David Darricarrère have been understated in their recruitment but also cursed by misfortune.
Marquee signing former All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu spent the first three months of the season on the sidelines with a shoulder injury.
The malaise, on and off the pitch, was exacerbated when their French international outhalf Rémi Talès, the club captain, declared during the present campaign that he would be joining the exodus to Paris next season.
It was seen as a further disintegration of the side that won the Bouclier de Brennus for the fourth time in the club’s history two years ago. Labit and Travers, left for the bright lights of Paris and Racing Metro, and then in July of 2013 the hugely popular club owner Pierre Fabre died, 25 years after taking over. Milhas and Darricarrère were enticed from Biarritz and Agen respectively, while the title-winning captain Matthias Rolland assumed the role of managing team affairs.
The club finished sixth last season, scrapping into the playoffs, one point ahead of Stade Francais, but the postscript to the season proper had everything but the Hollywood ending.
Castres beat Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin, the first side to do so in almost five years, and then accounted for Montpellier in the semi-final, before Toulon doused the flame.
It has been said that last season’s final appearance was driven by the senior players who rummaged to find the last vestige of the Labit/Travers legacy as a source of inspiration and that the current coaching team haven’t been able to, or don’t possess the wherewithal, to recast a side into freshly minted challengers.
Rolland said at the time: “The players still believe in the coaching system. But in order to rediscover our confidence and improve our efficiency we’ve got to temporarily simplify our game, make it more direct.”
In league terms, every step forward was followed by one or two back. The Champions Cup might have offered a respite but when Leinster arrived and brought the home side’s 18-game winning streak at Stade Pierre Antoine to an end, in the second round of matches, Castres’ domestic struggle became their focus.
In November the club announced that Christophe Urios, the former Castres hooker who spent nine years at the club as a player and who is the current director of rugby at Oyonnax, will be directing rugby affairs next season.
He’s likely to bring assistants Frédéric Charrier and Joe El-Abd with him, prospectively leaving Milhas, Darricarrère and Rolland to peruse the situations vacant column. That uncertainty has to be dispiriting.
The only sliver of good news that their South African-born, French international and points’ metronome, scrumhalf Rory Kockott, signed a new contract: there was no shortage of suitors for his signature. It represents an incidental comfort in the short term.
Players and management have to find a way to muddle through, a tough task from both a human and rugby perspective.
Centre Rémi Lamerat described it “as a negative spiral” earlier in the season, before adding “after two seasons of success one might say the squad is resting on its laurels”. Castres have lost all 10 matches (both tournaments) on the road this season, conceding a whopping 364 points; only twice have they finished within single digits of the opposition.
While the ledger is still skewed towards the debit side in a major way, there have been one or two green shoots with successive home wins, coincidentally against Oyonnax, and Bayonne over the Christmas period. Castres, second last in the table, are just 10 points behind Grenoble, who lie sixth.
There may be a temptation to dismiss the challenge that they’ll present at the RDS. It might be a tad foolish to do so.
The pressure is firmly on the home side because they are the only team concerned by the match points.
Pride is an intangible in terms of measurement but the scoreboard isn’t.
As long as Castres recognise the game as a contest then there’ll be integrity to their challenge. They can put aside the cares of their domestic situation for 80 minutes.