Toulon may have won the Heineken Cup but this South African scrum-half wants Castres to have the last laugh in the Top 14 final on Saturday.
Rory Kockott is a man who catches puff adders in his spare time. For the uninitiated, the venomous puff adder is arguably the fastest striking snake in the world, timed at .25 of a second, one reason why they are responsible for more snakebite fatalities in Africa than any other species. But whenever the Castres’ scrum-half pops home to the family farm in the Eastern Cape for a bit of R&R woe betide any puff adder that slithers too close. Kockott learned to catch snakes as a boy and he says that providing you never lose your respect for them it’s easier than one imagines.
He holds a similar view on Toulon. Castres face the European champions on Saturday night in the final of the Top 14 and while Kockott will treat Toulon with respect he’ll run out on to the Stade de France without fear. “There’s no doubt we go in as underdogs,” agrees the 27-year-old, whose brilliant solo try at the end of the first-half in last year’s final gave Castres the self-belief to go on and beat Toulon. “They showed what a great side they are on Saturday (in beating Saracens) and have been impressive all season.”
Castres, on the other hand, have had the oddest of seasons. They lost three of their first five league matches and it took them until the end of November to record their first win on the road – a 20-16 victory in Montpellier. Their stuttering performances continued into 2014, interspersing eye-catching wins over Toulouse and Brive with sloppy displays against the likes of Stade Français, Biarritz and Bayonne. The defeat to Bayonne on the last weekend of the regular season condemned Castres to a quarter-final trip to Clermont. Adieu, we all assumed, but Castres triumphed 22-16, inflicting on Clermont their first home defeat since November 2009 and ending their 76-match winning streak at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Any quarter-final win is to be cherished, but Kockott says the fact they also ended the most formidable winning streak in professional rugby made it “special”. “Wins like that have a big psychological effect,” he explains. “You remember it, you take the experience of it and it makes you stronger as a squad.”
It’s the cohesion of the Castres squad that makes them such a dangerous proposition. Having seen off Clermont, Castres went on to beat Montpellier in the semi-final and of their 23-man squad for that match only four hadn’t been at the club the previous season. “What it gives you is experience,” explains Kockott. “We share a common mindset. We’ve been there, experienced that and so in the pressure games we can figure out the ways and the means to win matches.”
What makes Castres’ run to the final for a second successive season (a feat they last achieved in 1949 and 1950) all the more impressive is that they have a new coaching team this season. The two Laurents – Labit and Travers – departed last summer to racing Racing Métro and in came David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas. “It’s been great the way the squad has adapted,” reflects Kockott, who adds that he’s also tinkered with his own style this season. “Games have been tighter this season, there’s been more pressure on me and I’ve had to use my experience to do the right thing in certain situations.”
There’s also been a fair bit of pressure on Kockott off the field after he signed a pre-contract deal with Toulon in October, only to remain loyal to Castres, a change of heart that allegedly cost the club in the region of €300,000. Asked about the affair, Kockott says: “I’m happy with the decision I’ve made. I needed to stand back and get a perspective on what I wanted, but I know what is important in my life.”
Less happy were the Toulon fans, who barracked Kockott when he appeared for Castres at the Stade Mayol in the same month he turned his back on the Cote d’Azur club. He laughs when reminded about the jeers. “That’s sport! It’s like the days of the gladiators when they gave you the thumbs up or the thumbs down. But I don’t get involved in all that.”
The Toulon faithful – an estimated 20,000 will be in Paris on Saturday night – will probably target Kockott again, but that’s as much to do with his influence in the Castres side as any lingering resentment over the transfer saga. The fans aren’t alone in appreciating the danger Kockott poses to Toulon’s chances of doing the double. “The job’s not done,” warned Bakkies Botha a few hours after crushing Saracens. “Rory Kockott, he’s already in bed. I fear a lot this player. When I left South Africa he was an average scrum-half. After a few months at Castres he’s become a master.”
Kockott has the same mental strength as Jonny Wilkinson, a player the South African salutes as “massive…someone who has a profile like no one else in the game”
All the talk going into Saturday’s final will be about Wilkinson as the Toulon fly-half prepares to bring down the curtain on his wonderful career. That’s fine by Kockott. This time last year no one gave Castres a hope against Toulon and they triumphed 19-14. Can history repeat itself? Kockott carries a quiet confidence that suggests it can.
Watch out, Toulon, there could be a snake in the Stade de France grass.
Watch Kockott in action below!