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