MAYBE it’s the journalist in me – the whole dispassionate professional observer thing that has been beaten into me by tutors and editors over the years – but I’ve never been one to go to a victory parade that I haven’t had to because of work.
But, on Sunday, I broke the habit of a lifetime and took my wife, daughter and son to Stade Pierre Antoine, the home ground of Castres Olympique, where we joined about 15,000 other people to welcome the newly crowned Top 14 champions home after their astonishing night out in Paris a matter of hours earlier.
I always felt there was something slightly phony about victory parades. The whole open-topped bus thing just seemed a little bit contrived; especially when the speeches started and everyone expressed surprise that so many adoring fans had turned up.
Don’t feign surprise, bud. You’ve been planning this. It’s been in the local paper and everything…
Well, I get it now. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but we just had to be at the ground when the players arrived with the trophy. We knew, thanks to the miracle of social media, when they would be turning up… but we still made sure we were there good and early.
We’d followed them all season, and on Saturday – live from our living room – we joined the 10,000 or so fans who made the trip to Stade de France, and the 13,000 others who watched the match on a big screen in Place Soult in Castres. We may not have been there in body, but we were with the players – our heroes – as they outplayed, out-thought and outfought mighty Toulon to lift the title.
And – maybe because we couldn’t be there in person on the night – we just had to make sure we were front and centre to see them safely home again.
Some of them are going on to pastures new. The Laurents, coaches Labit and Travers, will be in charge of big-spending Racing Metro next season. They’re taking Marc Andrieu with them, while Joe Tekori is heading up the road to Toulouse, and Pierre Barnard and Thierry Lacrampe are also among those moving on.
But they will always be legends here and – I really hope – a little piece of their hearts will be forever Castraise.
Oh – and for the record – here’s a slightly biased report on the match….
After Castres’ shock win over Clermont in the semi final of the Top 14 play offs, normal service was resumed for the final at Stade de France.
Once all the experts, pundits and journalists had picked their jaws off the floor and delivered glowing reports about the ‘big team from the little town in the Tarn’, they then pretty much wrote off their chances of beating European champions Toulon in the showpiece match.
And so it came to pass that, once again, everybody underestimated Castres. It’s something that comes as no great surprise to anyone who follows this most unfashionable Top 14 team. They have become used to being underestimated and disregarded; written off and ignored.
Chances are that is about to change, after Les Bleus et Blancs defied the odds, expectations and the experts for the second time in seven days. And how.
Toulon will deny it, but there can be little doubt among those who saw the game that they expected their opponents to play their plucky role but – in the end – come up bravely, honourably short against the expensively assembled side from Var.
That isn’t the way Castres play. They will chase and harry, tackle and fight for every ball from the first whistle to the last lost cause. And they’ve only lost three out of the last 13 games against their more illustrious opponents.
And that is why they are the champions of France, having won 19-14.
With varying degrees of hyperbole, websites and newspapers have been telling anyone and everyone that this result is a huge shock. Toulon, like Clermont in the semi finals, started as huge favourites.
On French channel Canal+, rugby luminaries Fabien Pelous, Thomas Castaignède and Marc Lievremont all just about managed to keep a straight face as they discussed Castres’ chances before the match kicked off. At least they had the decency to look surprised at half time, when the score was 10-3, but their shell-shock at the final whistle was genuine.
Not that they should have been. Toulon had tried to impose their will early by unsettling their opponents scrum. The thinking was clear. The power of Castres’ forwards had broken the Clermont pack and Auvernaise hearts a week earlier. Break their pack and their game is sure to fall apart, and Jonny Wilkinson will be their to pick up points from the pieces.
The favourites duly drew first blood at the first scrum, shoving Castres back a metre or so. But the side that finished the regular season in fourth place are made of sterner stuff than they had predicted. First they regrouped, then they held their own – and arguably they had a slight edge in the forwards for much of the rest of the game.
And it meant, with Wilkinson being uncharacteristically wayward with the boot – he missed three out of seven – Plan A was unlikely to work.
Unfortunately, rather like George Osborne’s self-hyped austerity measures to save Britain from an as-yet undefined fate worse than recession, it turned out there was little in the way of a Plan B.
Toulon huffed and puffed, but just couldn’t blow Castres’ house down. Toulon threw the ball around, but Castres did what they do best. They chased and harried, tackled and fought for every ball – and, sure as egg chasers are egg chasers, they forced their opponents into error after error.
Just as he had against Clermont, Rory Kockott scored points while his forwards, increasingly, shined. On the stroke of half-time, he benefited from his pack’s ascendency to break away from a scrum on Toulon’s 22 to touch down unopposed under the posts.
It was the score that broke Toulon’s will.
Although Jonny Wilkinson would drag Toulon back – almost against their will – to 9-10, two Remy Tales’ drop goals in the space of three minutes meant the contest was all but over with 10 minutes to go, and all hope was abandoned when Kockott landed a long-range penalty with the seconds ticking away.
Delon Armitage finally crossed the Castres line for what was very much a consolation try, but all it did was add an air of respectability to the final score.