David Kelly: Are Castres champs or chumps?
Top 14 kingpins must show appetite for Europe or else face being mauled by Leinster
Published 17/10/2013 | 05:00
History suggests that Castres, despite being the current Top 14 champions, will not pitch up in the RDS with much optimism of getting a result this Saturday against Leinster.
The French side have won just two of their last 21 away games in the Heineken Cup and they have lost all seven of their games in Ireland.
But this relatively small-town club, nestling on the Agout river between south-west France heavyweights Toulouse and Montpellier, defied the odds to lift the Top 14 crown last season, so Leinster will remain wary.
"They call it the group of death, don't they?" mused Rob Kearney this week.
"There's such quality sides there. You like to think you are always guaranteed your home games in the Heineken Cup, then if you can sneak a few away wins or a couple of bonus points then you'll be in a good place.
"But with this group, you are not guaranteed anything. A couple of years back, you look at the game at home and say that's a bit of a banker. This year it's not."
The bookmakers will beg to differ as they prepare to scratch their odds on the blackboard – already, before team announcements, they have the three-time European champions as shoo-in 16-point favourites, which suggests a five-point match haul.
However, in grinding out a typically ascetic home win against Northampton last weekend, after characteristically offering up the domestic points in a 34-0 shellacking at Brive a week earlier, will Castres send their champs or chumps to Dublin?
Their status as French champions demands respect – now the rest of Europe will see whether they are prepared to earn it on the Heineken Cup stage as they keep one eye on a hesitant start to a league campaign which currently sees them languishing in 11th place. Admittedly, they are nearer the top than the bottom in terms of points, trailing by seven to Toulon, the European champions, whom they defeated in the Top 14 final last June.
That signified just how difficult it is for even the wealthy sides to "chase the two hares," the vain quest for domestic and European glory so colourfully descried by Toulouse boss Guy Noves.
And, after a season of upheaval that saw the prime architects of that unexpected success, joint coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, depart for Racing Metro, it is questionable whether they have the stomach or the depth for an assault on two fronts.
Although their budget has again increased – from €15m to €17m – Castres remain ninth in terms of financial power in the Top 14, rendering their championship success last season all the more laudable. They managed to hang on to arguably their most influential player, South African-born, but imminently French-qualified Rory Kockott, but lost key performers in Marc Andreu and Joe Tekori.
Laboratoires Pierre Fabre are their main financial backer and the eponymous magnate, who died during the summer, was granted his dying wish when the erstwhile joint coaches visited him with the Bouclier de Brennus.
That French title was a long-standing target for Fabre, and, after winning the title in 1993, they reached the knock-out stages a further nine times, all the while thumbing their noses at European fare.
Serge Milhas and David Darricarrere have the unenviable task of replacing Travers and Labit and, with Scottish lock Richie Gray their only high-profile recruit, the squad looks even weaker than that which shocked the French establishment last year.
And yet some fundamental traits remain. They have a big, bruising pack – indeed, they jousted against a formidable Northampton pack last week with reserve props, while Kockott fulfils a Ruan Pienaar-esque influence if his side are going forward.
His was the dominant personality in the grim battle at Stade Pierre Antoine last weekend as they opened their campaign with a 19-13 win, a breakaway try from Romain Martial proving the difference between the sides, with Kockott's rockets from the tee doing the rest.
"He is a fantastic little player," says Saints coach Jim Mallinder. "Whenever we made a mistake, he pinned us back."
"They had good patches of attacking play and a fluent offloading game, but things like the driving maul were going well for us and we weren't rewarded as we thought we should have been," adds Saints hooker Dylan Hartley.
Northampton did well in the line-out – Devin Toner will have noted Courtney Lawes' efforts – and the scrum arguably edged the battle against the predominantly second-choice front-row.
"It was always going to be a bit of a scrap out here. It's the way they play," Mallinder says. "What Castres do very well is slow you down. We struggled to get any real quick ball in the contact, we struggled to get on the front foot. They play an unstructured type of game and are very difficult to work out."
It was the first time Castres won their opening Heineken Cup game in eight years. The question now is whether they can gee themselves up for a realistic attempt to stop a formidable Leinster side in their tracks.
Leinster's defeat to Clermont last season ended a series of 12 consecutive victories over French clubs at home, a run that included a 33-3 win over this week's visitors in 2008.
Significantly, Castres won the return 18-15, in a game where Jonny Sexton struggled. He would be dropped by the eventual champions until Felipe Contepomi's injury in that season's Croke Park semi-final against Munster sparked a charge to the title.
So, Leinster will know that, even if the French are becalmed this week, they will lurk dangerously on their home turf as this fiendishly difficult Pool 1 unfolds.
"We had to get some of our confidence back after the shocking defeat against Brive and the Heineken Cup was a perfect opportunity to try to do that," says Darricarrere. "We're very satisfied with the result. More than anything else, we got the win through the spirit and determination we put into the game against a high-quality side.
"Although we're satisfied with the result, we'll have to do a lot more against Leinster, get more possession and play more accurately. It was important for our state of mind to do well."
With back-rower Piula Faasalele, prop Yannick Forestier and winger Marcel Garvey joining a lengthening injury list, it is their state of mind this weekend which will determine what they hope to achieve.
It will be Leinster's responsibility to ensure their ambitions remain characteristically limited.