It took just one attack and less than three minutes for Marcel Garvey to give Castres the perfect start to the defence of their title, barrelling over the try line despite the attention of two Perpignan defenders.
Rory Kockott duly converted the simple conversion.
Unfortunately for CO, the rest of the match did not go according to plan.
It was threatening to turn into a tough night at the office for Perpignan. Shortly after James Hook missed a long-range penalty to cut the deficit, the Welsh player was guilty of holding on to the ball on the ground, giving Kockott a chance to extend Castres’ lead to 10-0 in less than 10 minutes. He made no mistake.
At this stage, the champions were playing all the rugby, and it seemed there was little that Perpignan coach Marc Delpoux could do other than chew his lip reflectively, look vaguely like an avuncular Doctor Evil and dream wistfully of sharks with frickin’ lasers.
It took 15 minutes for the home side to launch a serious attack of their own, which ended with Hook converting a straightforward penalty. It breathed a little life into them, and they slipped up a gear of frenetic, activity, their forwards pounding away at Castres’ defence – only for full back Hook to somehow drop the ball when it was easier to score, allowing Kirkpatrick to clear the lines from the resulting scrum.
After Camille Lopez cut the gap to just four points with a drop goal, Castres’ full-back Romain Martial was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle. It was better than sharks with frickin’ lasers for Delpoux, as winger Guitoune made the most of Martial’s absence to atone for Hook’s earlier error by going over in the corner. Hook neatly slotted the difficult conversion to put Perpignan ahead for the first time in the match.
But, despite being a man down, still Castres kept coming. They bounced back with a penalty of their own to level the scores just two minutes later.
Romain Martial returned to the field after half time and soon threatened to turn villain for Castres again as a wayward pass gave Perpignan the ball. Fortunately for the visitors, their opponents could not make the most of this gilt-wrapped chance, and knocked on before things became too got out of hand.
It didn’t take long, however, for Hook to kick a penalty to give Perpignan the lead for a second time – something that didn’t look likely, or even faintly possible, in the opening quarter of the game. A whole load of very little then happened for six minutes before he got a chance to do it all over again.
Castres fought back, and Kockott reduced the deficit with another penalty, after Perpignan got a little too enthusiastic at the breakdown – but the hosts just didn’t learn and repeated the offence seconds later, giving Castres a chance to push them back into their 22.
A couple of minutes later, replacement Piula Faasalele to force his way over to restore the champions’ lead, which was duly extended as Kockott converted.
It was just the fillip Castres needed, as the match entered its final quarter.
They had conspired to make life a little hard for themselves and as a result had to soak up rather more pressure than was absolutely necessary. In fairness, they were still making things difficult for themselves, until Perpignan’s combative fly-half Dewaldt Duvenage was carded for a deliberate knock-on – but Kockott spoiled his until-then perfect night’s work by – just – missing the resulting penalty. He tried to make up for things with an outrageous drop-goal attempt from somewhere near Mars – but at least it killed some time.
It wasn’t enough… With 10 minutes to go, Perpignan gave up the chance of three almost-certain points with a penalty inside the 22 by kicking for touch. It looked like it paid off when Castres’ captain Yannick Caballero was sin-binned in the mess that followed the line-out.
With Castres a man down, Perpignan went for the scrum, only to pushed off the ball by the seven men in white. They had other heroes to thank seconds later as last-gasp tackles prevented Perpignan scoring what should have been a straightforward try.
But the Castres seven were unable to repeat their earlier heroics – and gave away a penalty. Which led to another scrum. Which led to Camille Lopez breaking Castres’ hearts by scoring under the posts with just two minutes to go. Hook, as you’d expect, didn’t miss.
CASTRES 23 (13) – 26 (13) PERPIGNAN
Castres: Garvey, Faasalele
Perpignan: Guitoune, Lopez
Castres: Kockott (2)
Perpignan: Hook (2)
Castres: Kockott (3)
Perpignan: Hook (2)