By Gavin Mortimer
LAST SEASON was a funny old one for Marcel Garvey. Seventeen outings for Castres in the Top 14 and just one try, and that in the final game of the regular season against Racing Metro. Wind forward a few months and the 30-year-old winger is in red-hot form, scoring three tries for Castres in their opening two games of the Top 14.
So what’s gone on over the summer to bring about the change? A new fitness regime? A freshness of mind? Nothing so complicated, explains Garvey, who was rested for the trip to Bordeaux on Saturday in readiness for Castres’ clash against Stade Francais this Wednesday evening. “It’s just luck, being in the right place at the right time,” he explains. “I felt my form was fine last season but I was just unlucky not to score more tries. But that’s the way it sometimes goes.”
Garvey does himself a disservice. The two tries he scored against Grenoble the week before last were both finished in style, with the same sharpness he showed regularly for Gloucester and Worcester. Garvey insists that last season he was similarly incisive, making line breaks and creating tries but never quite getting on the end of a move. That was probably the main reason he missed out on Castres’ extraordinary end to the season, when in the play-offs they beat Montpellier, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon to win their first Top 14 title for 20 years. “I played in the last game of the regular season against Racing but then the coaches made a few changes for the game (quarter-final) against Montpellier,” reflects Garvey. “The boys went well and the coaches stuck with the same side right through to the final.”
Despite missing out on the final, Garvey describes the day – and the return to the Castres with the Bouclier de Brennus – as one of the most memorable moments of his career. “It was incredible,” he says. “There were 20,000 people to greet us in Castres and the population of the town is only about 50,000.”
The passion of the fans is one reason why Garvey finds Castres to his liking. “Before I came to France some people said I’d find it hard to adapt, but that’s not been the case at all. The whole family has taken to the lifestyle and my three kids (aged nine, six and four) have adapted really well. They’ve picked up the language much quicker than me!”
Max Evans, who came to Castres in 2011, lives a couple of doors up and was on hand to offer assistance when the Garveys arrived in the summer of 2012, and the French players in the squad have been similarly supportive. “They’ve taken us under their wing,” explains Garvey. “We’ve been to barbecues, lunches and they’ve done so much to make us feel welcome.”
It was that camaraderie that played such an important part in Castres stunning success last season. Lacking the superstar names of Toulon, Racing or Clermont, Castres’ strength is their unity and that’s been maintained this season with the arrival of the new coaching team of Serge Milhas and David Darricarrère. “They’re calm coaches, and they have a confidence in the players that makes it easier for us to go and play the way they want us to,” says Garvey.
That ‘way’ is more expansive than what went before at Castres under the previous coaching pair of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit. “I like the new style,” admits Garvey. “It’s good for me, and Max, and the rest of the backs.”
It will be intriguing to see how Castres fare in the Heineken Cup, pooled as they are with Leinster, Northampton and the Ospreys. As Castres showed last season, they’re not one of those French teams who go to pieces the moment they leave their city limits. Home or away, says Garvey, “we’ll go into every match with no fear”.
Garvey is particularly relishing the chance to play Northampton, a team he knows well from his 11 years in the Premiership. Not just because the Saints are an old rival but because it will be an opportunity to go head-to-head with arguably the most famous wing in the world right now. “I’ve played against George North once before,” says Garvey. “It was a pre-season friendly for Worcester against the Scarlets in his breakthrough season. He was a unit then and he’s grown into a world-class player. If I get the chance to play against him it will be a challenge, and a great opportunity.”