By Gavin Mortimer
THERE ARE still moments when Antonie Claassen has to pinch himself. Can it really be true? A French international and in the final of the Top 14? “It is hard to believe at times,” says the South African-born No8. “This time last year I was at about the lowest point of my career and now here I am, I’ve played for France and I’m about to play in my first Top 14 final. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better season.”
A Brive stalwart for five seasons, Claassen suffered as much as anyone when the club was relegated from the Top 14 last May. “At Brive I felt more and more under pressure to perform every week,” he says. “I was the captain and I felt that responsibility.”
Freed of that burden, the 28-year-old Claassen has been outstanding this season, his explosive pick-ups from the base of a scrum are a familiar sight as Castres finished fourth at the end of the regular Top 14 season. That achievement earned them a play-off against Montpellier, a match Castres won 25-12, with Claassen scoring the only try of the game. Next up was Clermont in the semi-final in Nantes, and few in France gave them much hope of success against a side that finished 17 points clear of them in the table.
But Castres not only won, they dismantled the much-vaunted Clermont pack in an astonishing 25-9 victory. The more one-eyed Clermont supporters might say their boys were still sluggish after their Heineken Cup final defeat to Toulon the previous week, but don’t believe it: Clermont were simply outplayed.
“No one gave us much chance going into that game but we believed in ourselves,” says Claassen. “So while we were surprised by the margin of victory we weren’t by the result. We played controlled, clinical rugby and we took the points when they were on offer.”
What pleased Claassen most about the win was the camaraderie, an esprit de corps that he singles out as the prime factor in his own continued good form. “I don’t want the season to end!” he declares when asked if he’s not feeling the strain after ten months of rugby that includes three appearances for France in the Six Nations. “Right now I feel I could continue playing for another couple of months. The key is feeling fresh mentally and I’m still feeling that because I’ve enjoyed coming to training every single day. The coaches [Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers] deserve a lot of credit for that; they’ve created an environment where it’s a pleasure to train.”
Claassen and his Castres buddies arrived back from Nantes on Sunday morning, touching down at the airport to find hundreds of fans there to greet them. “It’s been crazy since the moment we arrived back,” says Claassen. “They love their rugby in Castres and it’s a great boost for the town and the whole region that we’ve reached the final.”
Castres last appeared in the Top 14 final in 1995 so not surprisingly the town is preparing to decamp en masse to Paris to see if their boys can do to Toulon what they did to Clermont. The French press are talking up the final as David versus Goliath. Toulon are the European champions, a side sparkling with stars and possessing a €22m budget that is €5m more than Castres’. Then again, when the two sides met at Castres in February, Toulon went down 25-20, so the glamour boys from the Cote d’Azur are unlikely to arrive in Paris believing it’s job done.
“They won’t be complacent,” predicts Claassen, who jets off to New Zealand to join the France squad the day after the Top 14 Final. “They’ve got too much experience in their side to allow themselves to fall into that trap.”
So Claassen is preparing for another shuddering encounter as well as the opportunity to pit his wits against two Springbok legends in Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw. “I don’t see it as extra motivation,” says Claassen. “But it will be fun playing against a couple of South Africans.”
‘Fun’… playing against Botha? That will surely be a first, but perhaps it will be Claassen having the last laugh on Saturday night.
The Top14 final between Toulon and Castres will be screened live on TV5MONDE (Sky channel 799 and Virgin Media 825)