Tag Archives: Castres

Top 14 Preview: Castres

CastreslogoThe History

Founded in 1906, Castres Olympique were a dominant force in French rugby in the late 1940s. After picking up their first silverware in 1948 in the Coupe de France, les Castrais were crowned league champions in 1949 and 1950. All three winning sides were captained by goal-kicking second row Jean Pierre-Antoine, who tragically died at the age of 35 following a match against Montréjeau in 1956. Castres’ glory years were over and in the ’60s they dropped into the second division.

1989 was a crucial year in CO’s story as Pierre Fabre, the Castres-born founder of Laboratoires Pierre Fabre, bought into the club. The pharmaceutical tycoon bankrolled Castres into the top flight and in 1993, powered by the kicking of Laurent Labit and benefiting from a controversial try, les Castrais were once again champions of France. CO have been competitive in the Top 14 ever since, making a final, three semis, and five quarters. Fabre passed away last month, leaving behind a powerful legacy.

The Setting

Castres sits in the Tarn department, within the Midi-Pyrénées region of the south of France. The population of the town is under 45,000, with Laboratoires Pierre Fabre providing employment for many. CO’s home is the Stade Pierre-Antoine, named after their double title-winning captain. One of the stands bears the name of Francis Rui, a champion of France in ’93 with CO who later died in a car accident. The Stade Pierre-Antoine holds just over 10,000 people.

Last Season

Kockott

The final of last season’s final, Rory Kockott, holds aloft the Bouclier de Brennus. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

A magnificent shock, as CO won their first title in 20 years. Having finished fourth in the regular season log, les Castrais took advantage of a home barrages game to beat Montpellier. In the semi-finals, a powerful Castres pack took a tired Clermont to the cleaners, before Rory Kockott and Rémi Talès inspired their side to a fully deserved victory over Toulon in the final. Much of the credit went to the coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

While CO were by no means purveyors of champagne rugby, they managed to rack up points throughout the season through the boot of Kockott. The Stade Pierre-Antoine is a fortress for Castres, with just three losses there in four years in the Top 14. Under les deux Laurents, the Tarn men were never interested in the Heineken Cup, with all their effort concentrated domestically. The fact that CO don’t have any stars has also helped with their togetherness.

Ambitions

ASM vs CO

If CO are to retain their title, the scrum will be vital again. Clermont couldn’t handle Castres’ pack in the semi-final last season. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

The goal now is to retain their title. Understandably, most predictions of the Top 14 have focused around Toulon, Clermont, Racing, Toulouse and to some extent Montpellier. There has been little mention made of Castres’ chances of repeating their exploits of last year, and to be honest it is difficult to see them doing so. However, les Castrais are the proof that predictions in a league where the team who finish sixth can be champions is a foolish game.

The Coach(es)

The loss of the two Laurents is a major blow. In their place come Serge Milhas (forwards) and David Darricarrère (backs). Milhas was a scrumhalf for Auch and Colomiers, while Darricarrère played outhalf for Narbonne and Mont de Marsan. The pair first worked together at La Rochelle from 2007 until 2011, guiding them to promotion from the Pro D2 in the ’09/10 season before being relegated a year later.

In the summer of 2011, Milhas (48) moved to Biarritz but was sacked before Christmas and has been out work since. Darricarrère (42) spent a season with Dax, and then took charge of relegated Agen’s forwards last season. The duo are well aware of the challenge they face, but hope to pay homage to Pierre Fabre with a strong season. They will rely heavily on Castres’ excellence at the set-piece and hope Kockott can repeat his goal-kicking feats.

Transfer Activity

Gray

Richie Gray claims a lineout during Castres’ 42-31 win over Connacht on Friday. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Richie Gray is the marquee signing for CO. The 23-year-old lock will be expected to add a touch of class and has the task of replacing Matthias Rolland (now manager) as a pillar of strength in the squad. The Scot adds a powerful ball-carrying element and should adapt to the Top 14 well. The other addition likely to impact on the starting XV is Rémy Grosso from Lyon in the Pro D2. The 24-year-old’s 6ft 3 ins, 104kg frame is built for the Top 14 and he scored nine tries last season.

Julien Tomas (28) joins from Montpellier to replace the departed Thierry Lacrampe as back-up to Rory Kockott. The thrice-capped French international had played for MHR for his entire career, so the change of scenery may reinvigorate him. Spanish international Cédric Garcia (30) has moved from Bayonne to provide further depth at scrumhalf. The other two newcomers are promising wing Geoffrey Palis (22) and prop George Marich (21).

The key losses to for Castres are Marc Andreu and Joe Tekori. Both had their weaknesses, but Andreu’s tries and Tekori’s power will be missed.

Key Players

Co vs MHR 2012 - 2013

Scrumhalf Kockott is a fiery customer and Castres’ chief points-scorer. (c) Mathile Bourel.

Kockott’s performance in the Top 14 final highlighted his importance. The scrumhalf’s 13-point haul helped him to a season’s total of 376, piping Jonny Wilkinson to the title of top points-scorer. A dip in form in April had seen the South African dropped by les deux Laurents, but he bounced back in spectacular fashion. Labit has highlighted Kockott as possessing the most mental strength he has ever come across in a player. Powerful and confrontational, Kockott will lead CO’s charge again this season.

Castres’ scrum was a crucial element of their title success last season, particularly in the semi-final against Clermont. Karena Wihongi (33) started his career down in Fédérale 1 before spells at Bourgoin and Sale. At 130kg, the Kiwi is an immovable slab of a tighthead. At loosehead, former All Black Saimone Taumopeau (33) seems to improve with age, while French international Yannick Forestier (31) will be aiming to usurp him after injury troubles last season.

After five years with Brive, No. 8 Antoine Claassen made such an impact in his first season at Castres that he became a French international. The South Africa-born 28-year-old provides power and leadership. In front of him, Christophe Samson (29) was just as crucial having joined from Toulon last summer. Capped five times for France, the 6ft 6ins lock is a Nathan Hines-in-the-making, capable of doing the dirty work but with a touch of elegance.

Co vs MHR 2012 - 2013

Dulin is a man we are likely to see far more of at international level. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Fullback Brice Dulin is another who made a telling difference after joining last season from Agen. Having made his French debut last summer, the 23-year-old settled in Castres immediately. Unfortunately, Dulin will miss the start of the season with a broken jaw. At outhalf, Rémi Talès (29) was inspirational last season after an unremarkable career up until that point. The playmaker is now a French international having won two caps against New Zealand in June.

Irish Connection

Pedrie Wannenburg enjoyed two excellent years with Ulster before making the move to Castres last summer. Stifled by injuries and lacking in form, the South African made just five starts in the entire campaign. The 32-year-old will be back-up to Claassen once again, but will certainly hope to play a bigger role in Castres’ title defence.

Possible Starting XV

15. Dulin, 14. Martial, 13. Cabannes, 12. Bai, 11. Grosso, 10. Talès, 9. Kockott, 8. Claassen, 7. Caballero, 6. Bornman/Diarra, 5. Gray, 4. Samson, 3. Wihongi, 2. Mach, 1. Taumopeau

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Thanks to Mathilde Bourel for her permission to use the excellent photographs featured above. You can view more of her rugby photography on Flickr.

Drop Goal Deja Vu

Match Report

Castres 24-27 Munster

19th November @ Stade Ernst Wallon

Ronan O’Gara repeated last week’s heroics with a match-winning drop goal in the last play of the game to ensure two wins from two for Munster in Pool 1. From a similar position to the drop goal against Northampton, O’Gara once again showed serious nerve to land the three pointer. In doing so, he earned Munster a valuable four points in a game that looked like it had slipped away from them at one stage.

Castres set the early pace at the Stade Ernst Wallon, with outhalf Pierre Bernard opening the scoring with a long-range penalty out on the left after only 3 minutes. Several minutes later he added another booming penalty, this time from inside his own half. With Munster struggling to get into the game at this early stage, Castres built on their encouraging start with the first try of the game after 11 minutes.

Following strong carries from Jannie Bornman and then Chris Masoe, Bernard spread the ball wide to the right and good hands from the outside backs manufactured a two-on-one, allowing hooker Brice Mach to go over for the score. Bernard’s conversion came back off the upright, but Castres had now built a strong 11-0 lead.

Howlett went over for his second try in two games. Photo via MD+D

Munster manufactured a replying score within ten minutes. Wian du Preez put his team on the front foot and Paul O’Connell drove on inside the 22. Conor Murray cleverly put du Preez through a gap and then moved the ball to Coughlan who released Doug Howlett to dive over for the try. O’Gara added the conversion. This passage exemplified Munster at their best. Simple, strong carries from forwards coming onto the ball, then releasing the finishers off front foot ball.

A feature of the first half was Munster’s inability to come away from promising field positions with scores on the board. Just before the Howlett try, O’Gara had scuffed a drop goal attempt after good build up-play in the Castres 22. Soon after the try, he uncharacteristically missed a straightforward penalty attempt when Masoe was penalised for not releasing the tackled player. Then, when Munster returned to the Castres 22, Coughlan was penalised for side entry at the ruck following promising phases. When Castres came back downfield and were offered an opportunity in Munster’s 22, they made no mistake.

Castres kicked in behind Munster and after Murray had cleaned up, O’Connell carried from his own five metre line. Tekori stripped the ball from the Munster captain in contact and Castres swiftly moved the ball through the hands to Lakafia, a replacement for the injured Marc Andreu, wide on the left. He stepped inside a helpless Howlett to touch down. Bernard hit a lovely conversion to put Castres into an 18-7 lead.

On the stroke of half-time, Munster won a scrum battle underneath Castres’ posts to allow O’Gara to narrow that lead. Referee Wayne Barnes had reset the scrum five times before Wihongi was singled out for his binding. O’Connell smartly opted to get the points on the board rather than go for the scrum again. Tony McGahan must have stressed the importance of making territory count at half-time, because Munster began the second half with a well-worked try.

Murray ripped the ball from Masoe in contact and Will Chambers, on for Danny Barnes,used his strong fend to break through the Castres’ defence. Murray then looped off O’Connell and popped to Niall Ronan whose quick hands allowed Peter O’Mahony to gallop to the line as Castres fullback Florian Denos and Lakafia fluffed their defensive lines. O’Mahony fully deserved his try, following up last week’s Man of the Match performance against Northampton with another high-powered effort here. O’Gara added the conversion to O’Mahony’s score.

Bernard gave Castres a four-point lead when Wayne Barnes penalised Munster for dragging down a maul. O’Gara then missed with another drop goal attempt following a counter attack involving Johne Murphy, Howlett and Ronan. Perhaps the outhalf’s drop kicking boots had been left behind in Thomond Park? With Castres holding onto the ball in the Munster half, Ronan made a crucial turnover allowing O’Gara to boot downfield, eventually resulting in Munster taking the lead for the first time.

O'Gara was the hero again. Photo via MD+D

O’Gara blocked down an attempted relieving kick from Castres’ Remi Talles and Denis Leamy, on for James Coughlan, pounced on the rebounding ball. He offloaded to Chambers who crossed the whitewash untouched. O’Gara swung his conversion through the uprights and Munster led 24-21 with ten minutes remaining. The lead didn’t last long though, as BJ Botha was punished for losing his feet at a scrum and Bernard drew Castres level with the penalty, 24-24.

Munster nearly broke through for a try with time running out when Chambers made a scything break through the middle, fending off several tacklers and showing great pace. Mafi took the offload from Chambers but Howlett was then driven into touch as the move broke down. However, the feeling remained that Munster could manufacture one more opportunity, especially with the last-gasp win over Northampton so fresh in mind.

Munster didn’t need 41 phases to construct the position for O’Gara this time. O’Leary hit his outhalf with a pinpoint long pass and, with the last act of the game, O’Gara struck another beauty from the ten-metre line. A legend, a hero, who else would you rather have in that position?

View all the tries and O’Gara’s drop goal here.

Photo courtesy: MD+D

Heineken Cup Round 2 Previews

Photo via MD+D

Castres vs. Munster @ Stade Ernst Wallon

Saturday 19th November (15.40)

Tony McGahan’s side travel to France buoyed by their thrilling injury-time win over Northampton. This fixture has been moved away from Castres’ own 10,000 capacity Stade Pierre Antoine to Toulouse’s Stade Ernst Wallon which holds almost 19,000. Castres come into this game in need of a win after their opening round 31-23 loss to the Scarlets, where a Rhys Priestland penalty late on denied them a losing bonus point.

For Castres, the most influential players include captain Chris Masoe. The former All Black notched a try last weekend and his team will look to him for inspiration. Winger Marc Andreu, who also went over for a try against the Scarlets, has been capped for France. Samoan Iosefa Tekori moves to the second row for this encounter and he can be dangerous from open play. Fullback Romain  ‘Robocop’ Teulet, who is lethal from the tee, has been dropped to the bench. Max Evans makes his first European start for Castres on the right wing, while his fellow countryman Scott Murray starts in the second row.

Castres currently sit 3rd in the Top 14 and have had wins against Stade Francais, Biarritz, Montpellier and Toulouse already this season. Clearly, this is another tough fixture for Munster. However, home advantage for Castres has been diluted with the change of venue and apparent disgruntlement of their fans at this move. With an unchanged team from last week, Munster have momentum on their side, and will target another good start. This will not be an easy day out for Munster but they should return home with another four points in the bag.

Connacht vs. Toulouse @ The Sports Ground

Saturday 19th November (18.00)

Another historic day for Connacht after last weekend’s maiden Heineken Cup match away to Harlequins. This game marks the province’s 100th game of European rugby. The Sports Ground has been sold-out so expect an extremely vocal 9,000-strong crowd. Connacht fans have been waiting for fixtures of this calibre for many years so Eric Elwood can certainly rely on a 16th man come Saturday evening.

There couldn’t be a more illustrious visitor than four-time champions Toulouse for Connacht’s first home Heineken Cup clash. They are synonymous with this tournament and represent a huge challenge. Toulouse had a difficult first fixture last weekend, having to come from behind twice to beat Gloucester 21-17 at home. They have enjoyed a great start to the Top 14 season and sit top of the table with eight wins from ten games.

With big names like Clement Poitrenaud, Florian Fritz, Census Johnston and recent Australian recruit Luke Burgess, this is another in the long line of Toulouse teams with quality all over the pitch and throughout the squad. Thierry Dusautoir, Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and William Servat all start this weekend for the first time since returning from the World Cup. Lionel Beauxis replaces Luke McAlister at out half. Meanwhile, the Connacht team sees one change, with David Gannon coming into the second row. Mike McCarthy moves to the back row and Ray Ofisa drops to the bench.

Connacht were disappointed to lose out to Harlequins and will once again aim to prove that they are in this tournament on merit. They showed up well against Harlequins, dogged in defence and with cutting edge in attack, scoring two tries. If they can stay close to Toulouse coming into the closing stages of the game then anything is possible. It would be a huge upset, but this is a Connacht side who fear no one. This should be a cracking game.

Leicester vs. Ulster @ Welford Road

Saturday 19th November (18.00)

Ulster opened up their Heineken Cup campaign with a 16-11 win over Clermont at Ravenhill last Saturday. Ulster were the stronger team throughout but an abundance of unforced errors meant they didn’t convert possession into scores, particularly in the first half. Brian McLaughlin was understandably pleased with his team but will stress to them that these mistakes must be reduced. Still, the defensive effort and overall performance from Ulster was encouraging and they go to Welford Road with belief.

Leicester enjoyed a 28-12 win away to Aironi last Friday but missed out on a bonus point. Toby Flood controls their game from outhalf while the occassionally unstoppable Alesana Tuilagi is a real handful on the wing. Geordan Murphy captains the side from fullback. The likes of Dan Cole, Tom Croft and Thomas Waldrom provide the grunt up front. Ex-Leinster winger Niall Morris scored a try on his Heineken Cup debut last weekend but is on the bench this week.

Tuilagi will pose a threat. Photo via MD+D

Leicester have endured a fairly torrid start to their Aviva Premiership campaign, winning only twice in eight games. As expected, they have shown better form recently with the return of their World Cup players. They will expect to continue this resurgence with a win over Ulster in front of their fans. They will not have it easy against an Ulster side led by Johann Muller and the inspired Stephen Ferris. Ulster are without Paddy Wallace for the next 6-8 weeks after he underwent thumb surgery. Nevin Spence is promoted to the centre. Declan Fitzpatrick comes in at tighthead to replace John Afoa, who had returned to New Zealand to be Jerome Kaino’s best man. The rest of the starting line-up is unchanged.

This should be a hugely physical game at Welford Road. But with Toby Flood and Ian Humphreys lining up in the number 1o jerseys, there is always a chance of play opening up. Humphreys is up against his former club and will hope to direct play in familiar surroundings. Leicester are favourites for this tie and a losing bonus point would not be a disaster for Ulster at this stage. However, with Leicester still warming up in a season that is far from vintage up to this point, McLaughlin’s men will recognise this opportunity for a vital away win.

Leinster vs. Glasgow @ The RDS

Sunday 20th November (12.45)

Sexton saved Leinster against Montpellier. Photo via MD+D

Leinster were fortunate to come away from Montpellier with a 16-16 draw last weekend after a last-minute penalty allowed Jonny Sexton to equalize for his team. Joe Schmidt will look for his side to be more ruthless this weekend at home to the Glasgow Warriors. Leinster failed to come away with scores from several promising positions against Montpellier and must be more lethal this time around.

Glasgow come to the RDS following a fantastic last-gasp victory over Bath. After a Stephen Donald penalty had put Bath ahead with only minutes remaining, Richie Gray recovered Duncan Weir’s failed drop goal attempt to drive over for the winning score. Duncan Weir kicked four penalties and two conversion, while fullback Stuart Hogg went over for the only other try in the game. While not a hugely worrying performance from Leinster’s point of view, Glasgow did display grit and determination to come away with a win in a match where the lead constantly changed hands.

Highly-rated second row Gray and openside flanker John Barclay lead the Warriors up front along with captain Ally Kellock. Chris Cusiter lines out at scrumhalf while Graeme Morrison and Rob Dewey form a big, physical centre pairing. Tommy Seymour, signed from Ulster last summer and a former Ireland under-age international, lines out on the wing for the Scottish outfit. Joe Schmidt has made several changes to his starting fifteen. Eoin O’Malley comes into the side in place of Fergus McFadden who is suffering with a dead leg. Sean Cronin is rewarded for his try-scroing performance off the bench last week with a start in place of Richardt Strauss. Eoin Reddan replaces Isaac Boss at scrum half. Cian Healy returns to the squad but starts this game on the bench.

Leinster have already hosted Glasgow at the RDS this season. That RaboDirect PRO12 fixture back in September saw Glasgow come away with a 23-19 win. While that match was played without Leinster’s World Cup players, Glasgow too were missing their key men. They will take confidence from that win but Leinster’s returned World Cup players will add far more than the Warrior’s additions. This is a must-win game for Leinster so expect nothing other than a commanding win.

Photos courtesy: MD+D