FOR WEEKS, everyone who claims to know anything about French rugby has been telling anyone who may have cared to listen – or who couldn’t get away quickly enough – that the Top 14 final would be a second battle royal between Heineken Cup finalists Clermont Auvergne and Toulon.
Just one point separated the two best sides in France – and, arguably, Europe – at the end of the regular season, but there was 11 points of clear air between the top two and Toulouse in third.
There was, it turned out, just one problem. No one had bothered to tell Castres Olympique, who finished the regular season in fourth and had made almost no impact in Europe.
And so it was, just a week after Clermont fell foul of Jonny Wilkinson’s boot in Dublin – and a day after arch-rivals Toulon did their bit by making predicted mincemeat of defending champions Toulouse – the Auvergnaise came a cropper in their play-off semi final against the unfashionable Bleus et Blancs, a club that has defied the Top 14’s big-spenders and the pundits by reaching the end-of-season competition for the past four years.
But, until this year, their best result had been a semi-final defeat against Toulouse in 2012.
This was a victory based on never-say-die defence and a killer performance from the forwards. About the only time the Clermont pack was on the front foot was a few seconds after kick off, when Benjamin Kayser charged down a box kick from Castres’ scrum half Rory Kockott.
From then on, they spent the match either going backwards – rapidly – or down – painfully – as the Castres eight toyed with their scrum, and Kockott gleefully punished every infringement.
The fact is, when push came, there seemed to be no shove back. It was so one-sided it was hardly fair.
Worse for the favourites, they could do nothing with any halfway decent ball they could get their hands on.
Not that the Castres’ fans cared. Twenty years after their side last lifted the Top 14 trophy, those who made the trip to Nantes and the 10,000 more watching on a big screen in the Tarn town’s Place Soult were seeing something no one had said was possible; daring to believe what the experts had said would be unbelievable.
And the 25-9 victory at the final whistle was no less than they deserved. There’s no wonder more than 10,000 Castrians are making the long trip to Paris for Saturday’s final, while many more are expected to descend on Place Soult once again.
They’re the underdogs again, but that’s nothing new for the big team from a little town in the Midi-Pyrenees. Just expect the place to be shut for the day… And if they do the impossible for the second time in a week, it will be shut for a few days afterwards, too.