Tag Archives: Richie Gray

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.

The Touchline’s Player of The Championship

(c) καρλο.

The RBS Six Nations released the shortlist for their Player of the Championship this week. The winner is to be decided by the public’s online votes, with 12 candidate to choose from. The candidates are the 12 players who were awarded the RBS Man of the Match in each match in the first 4 rounds of the tournament. It’s a silly way to choose the shortlist, as the Man of the Match award is decided by the naturally biased host broadcasters at each match. Check out the official list here.

Julien Malzieu doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near the shortlist, with only one good display against Italy over the course of the Championship. Yoann Maestri made an impact for France, but having him ahead of Richie Gray is ridiculous. Donnacha Ryan did make an impression for Ireland, but he didn’t start the first three games. There’s plenty of holes to be picked in the shortlist, and it’s arguably missing some of the strongest performers of this year’s Six Nations.

So, The Touchline has decided to make our own shortlist for Player of the Championship. 12 players is too many, so we’ve gone for the 7 players who we feel have stood out in the first four rounds. We’ve put a poll in at the bottom of the piece so you can let us know who you would pick! Next week, we’ll reveal who you voted as The Touchline’s Player of the Championship. Please feel free to comment, letting us know why you went for the player you did, or if you would have included other players on the list…

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Rob Kearney

Kearney has made more clean line-breaks than any other player in the Six Nations so far. (c) Ken Bohane.

Kearney has been in superb form for Leinster all season, but he has stepped his game up to new heights in this Six Nations. While there have been questions marks over his covering tackling (Fofana’s try and Richie Gray’s effort), the 25-year-old’s fielding and counter-attacking have been inspirational for Ireland. The fullback has played almost every minute in Ireland’s campaign, only coming off with 8 minutes left against Scotland.

Kearney has looked supremely confident throughout the tournament, and the stats clearly back up the positive impression he has made. With 411, he is top of the ‘metres gained in possession’ stakes. He has made the most clean line-breaks with 6 and he is joint-top of the ‘defenders beaten’ list with George North, both on 15. Every time Kearney touches the ball, he looks like creating something. Hopefully, his confident form continues against England on Saturday.

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Wesley Fofana

With 4 tries in 4 games, Fofana has had a dream start to his international career. The Clermont speedster has come from nowhere this season, taking his chance with his club side during the World Cup, and never looking back. Originally a winger, Fofana’s move to inside centre has been a massive success. His pace and awareness of space make him a constant threat in attack, and while he’s not the biggest man, his natural power and speed make him a competent defender (2 missed tackles from 31 attempts).

Despite Fofana’s excellence in the centre, Philippe Saint-Andre has decided to move him to the wing for this Saturday’s game in Wales. It seems a strange decision, but the 24-year-old did damage there after Clerc’s first half injury against England. Having beaten 14 defenders in 4 games, ‘The Cheetah’ (his nickname in France) will do damage wherever he plays. Keeping George North quiet will be a difficult task, but the French man has passed every other test so far.

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Ritchie Gray

Gray on the way to scoring a brilliant individual try against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

The 6’10” second-row has played every single minute for Scotland in this Six Nations campaign, and has been brilliant in every single one of them. Still just 22, the 20 stone monster gets better with every game. He is a definite 2013 Lion. With his obvious physical advantage, Gray is a lineout king, and has the most number of lineout takes of any player, with 18. While he hasn’t been too prolific with clean steals, he makes opposition ball constantly scrappy out of touch.

Added to that, the Warriors’ second-row has been hugely influential in open play. His athleticism and skills are spectacular for a man of his potentially awkward dimensions. His try against Ireland is an obvious example, and Gray is joint-top of the Scottish clean line-breaks table. His offloading game has been intelligent and accurate too. To top it all off, Gray has yet to miss a tackle in the tournament,  making all 33 attempts. He has been a truly complete performer for Scotland.

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Owen Farrell

The English wonderkid was the source of plenty of hype coming into this tournament and he has lived up to much of it. Starting the first two games at outside centre, the 20-year-old was defensively outstanding if a little unspectacular in attack. His move to outhalf for the Wales and France games have seen him look a lot more comfortable. The entire English game has benefited from having Farrell direct play at 10.

For a young player in his debut international tournament, Farrell’s defensive game has been world-class. He has only missed 2 out of 33 tackles, but it is the power with which he hits that has impresses. His huge tackle on Harinordoquy last weekend was a perfect example. His distribution is steadily improving, and his place kicking has been very good. Kicking out of hand is one area where the youngster needs to improve, but he has plenty of time to do so. Farrell is already a guaranteed first-choice for England after this superb introduction to the international game.

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Sergio Parisse

Parisse scoring against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

It’s pretty much a given that Parisse is included in shortlists like this every single year. The Stade Francais man’ contributions for Italy are always magnificent and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. His frustration at teammate’s poor efforts has been a little more evident this year, but it’s hard to blame him. It would be fascinating to see the No.8 operate within a better team. Imagine him with the Lions next year? He must do so himself. However, Parisse continues to give his best for Italy though.

The 6’5″ back-row has been Italy’s top ball carrier so far this tournament with 40, although Andrea Masi only trails by a single carry. That makes Parisse the 6th most regular ball carrier in the Championship. He has also made 5 turnovers in the 4 games so far. That said, this has not been Parisse’s best ever tournament. Uncharacteristically, he has missed 6 tackles. Still, he has stood out for Italy and is always one of the finest players in the Six Nations.

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George North

It really is hard to fathom the fact that North only turns 20 next month. The Welsh winger is already one of the best wide men in world rugby and could easily become the undisputed number one. At 6’4″, well over 17 stone and with pace to burn, he is a beast of a teenager but that often masks just how good a rugby player he is. While it’s inarguable that North’s physical prowess gives him a huge advantage, he is also an intelligent player with a strong understanding of how he can best use his assets. He comes off his wing to great effect and is always looking for work.

North began the campaign with a brilliant try-scoring display against Ireland. His beautiful offload for Jon Davies’ second try showed his skills at their best. The Scarlets winger hasn’t scored since, but he has been hugely effective with ball in hand. Alongside Kearney, he has beaten the most defenders at 15. Defensively, he really hasn’t been called into action that much but has looked solid on those rare occasions. A definite Lion next year, and a phenomenal rugby talent.

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Stephen Ferris

Ferris has been equally strong in defence and attack this season. (c) Ken Bohane.

Here at The Touchline, we are massive fans of Ferris. After a quiet opening game against Wales, the Ulster man has gone into overdrive with his muscular performances. Earlier in the week, we shared our love for Ferris, so read more about his displays and why he’s on this list here.

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Honourable Mentions: Dan Lydiate, Ross Rennie, David Denton, Alex Cuthbert, Imanol Harinordoquy, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny.

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Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohaneκαρλο.

Robinson Makes One Change

Lineout

The Scottish lineout, competing on the English throw here, has been impressive so far. (c) Dave Strong.

Andy Robinson has kept faith with the side who put in a much-improved showing two weekends ago in the 23-17 defeat to France. The only change to the starting fifteen is an enforced one after Rory Lamont broke his leg in that match. Nick de Luca comes into the side, with Rory’s brother Sean moving to the wing to accomodate the Edinburgh centre.

There are three changes to the bench with Euan Murray returning after his self-imposed omission against France. The tighthead will almost certainly be used in the second-half on Saturday. Warriors outhalf Ruaridh Jackson replaces Duncan Weir as back-up to Grieg Laidlaw while Max Evans is back in the matchday 22 after the ordeal of clearing his name in court. The elusive wing/centre will be keen to get back on the pitch and reclaim his starting spot.

The big hitters and heavy carriers in Richie Gray, David Denton and John Barclay will be important again for Andy Robinson’s side. The Scottish pack have more than held their own in this tournament. Their lineout has been particularly successful and they will look to dominate there, especially with Paul O’Connell missing. But this Scottish side is not all about grunt up front.

Robinson’s men have shown a desire to attack with width and always look to keep the ball alive in the tackle. Their offloading game has improved in each game. However, three games in they have yet to record a win. That will ensure they come to the Aviva with intent and aggression. Even without POC and Murray, Ireland will be favourites, but they will have to be highly motivated for this battle.

Scotland team to face Ireland:

15. Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)

14. Lee Jones (Edinburgh Rugby)

13. Nick De Luca (Edinburgh Rugby)

12. Graeme Morrison (Glasgow Warriors)

11. Sean Lamont (Scarlets)

10. Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby)

9. Mike Blair (Edinburgh Rugby)

1. Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh Rugby)

2. Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby, capt.)

3. Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby)

4. Richie Gray (Glasgow Warriors)

5. Jim Hamilton (Gloucester)

6. John Barclay (Glasgow Warriors)

7. Ross Rennie (Edinburgh Rugby)

8. David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby)

Subs:

16. Scott Lawson (Gloucester) 17. Euan Murray (Newcastle Falcons) 18. Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) 19. Richie Vernon (Sale Sharks) 20. Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors) 21. Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) 22. Max Evans (Castres).

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Photo courtesy:  Dave Strong.