It’s a cliché but the current French champions, Castres Olympique, embody the typically French, home and away, Jekyll and Hyde mentality, and this season has shown no sign of a change. Last week’s 19-13 win over Northampton was their fifth out of five this season, and 10th in succession, at the Stade Pierre-Antoine, yet five defeats out of five on the road leaves them 11th domestically – the worst defence of the Bouclier de Brennus in Top 14 history after nine games.
It’s been much the same story in the Heineken Cup. Only once in nine attempts have they progressed beyond the group stages, and since that run to the semi-finals in 2001-02 when losing in their bitter rivalry to Munster, they have won just two of their last 22 away games in the Cup. Last season’s 9-6 success in Glasgow was their first on their travels since beating Treviso in the 2006-07 season.
Whether there will be a more pro-European approach this season remains to be seen, and will likely be confirmed over the next two days by, first, today’s selection to face Leinster, and secondly their performance at the RDS this season.
However, they may be more dangerous this time round for a couple of reasons. Their preference over the years for domestic matters has been understandable given their budget. At €15.61million, Castres have the ninth biggest budget in this season's Top 14, and ranked 13th in terms of average attendances (8-9,000), which also makes their fourth Bouclier de Brennus and first in exactly 20 years all the more remarkable.
That they were able to do so is largely down to the club's owner, Pierre Fabre, who passed away on July 20th, less than two months after witnessing Castres' beating Montpellier (25-12), Clermont (25-9) and finally Toulon (19-14). Although he had taken steps to ensure his club's well-being by setting up a trust to run Castres, there are fears as to whether they can continue to remain competitive in the Top 14 against bigger clubs.
Most of the squad has remained intact, save for the departed coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, winger Marc Andreu – who followed them to Racing – and lock Joe Tekori, who moved to Toulouse, although he had been sidelined for the final four months of last season.
However, it is widely expected that three of their key men, notably South African-born goal-kicking scrumhalf Rory Kockott, will leave. He has been a revelation since being initially signed two seasons ago as a 'medical joker', and was the try-scoring hero of last season's final at the Stade De france when taking his tally for the season to 376 points with 50 points in the three knock-out games.
But he is widely expected to be joining Toulon next season after they were rebuffed by Ruan Pienaar, with fullback Brice Dulin strongly linked with Racing Metro, as is their South African-born French number eight Antonie Claassen.
They are the key men, along with Rémi Tales, and while Dulin has been injured for the last couple of weeks, if the others are named in the starting line-up that would be a signal of intent against Leinster.
The new coaches are Serge Milhas and David Darricarrere, who were re-united after guiding La Rochelle from the ProD2 to the Top 14 with a bright, expansive brand of rugby, if still going back down again. Milhas went to Biarritz, and Darricarrere went to Agen.
There have been signs of a wider, more ball-in-hand game this season, notably when taking the game to Racing and the club's former coaches a few weeks ago, before reverting to type by searching for three-pointers.
Last season's was founded on the strength of a potent scrum, regarded as amongst the best in the Top 14, and a lineout maul, although the latter malfunctioned horribly last week in the win over Northampton, thanks in the main to the absence of injured flanker Yannick Caballero.
Milhas and Darricarrere have tended to pick their strongest side for games at the Stade Pierre-Antoine, where they have accounted for Grenoble, Stade Françias, Toulon and Racing Metro, as well as Northampton, whereas fielding weakened sides on the road.
As well as being in the unusual position of playing through until the end of May last season, Classen, Dulin and Tales all played for France in New Zealand last June, and they are also, of course, discovering what it is like to be a notable scalp. Last week’s win over Northampton was the first time in eight years and seven Heineken Cup campaigns, dating back to a victory over the Dragons, that Castres have kick-started their pool with a win, which might infuse them with more ambition in the RDS.
They can afford to swing from the hip against Leinster, but the likelihood remains that the Top 14, and reaching the play-offs again, will remain their priority.