By Tom Bentley
FOUR CONSECUTIVE play-off appearances point to a team consistently vying for the top echelons of French rugby. Yet Castres remain the quiet outsiders as the likes of Clermont and Toulon steal much of the limelight. Christophe Samson is a man who has played at both those clubs and now, at 29, finds himself flourishing at the heart of the Castres pack.
“A lot is said of the clubs ahead of us at the moment.Toulon and Clermont are two of the best teams in Europe – they are in the (Heineken Cup) final – so it’s normal that they make the headlines. But we are still making progress in our corner, with the goal of going further than last year,” says the lock.
Last year Castres came up short in the Top 14 semi-finals. Samson wasn’t at the club then but was busy playing his part as replacement for veteran Simon Shaw in Toulon’s run to their first championship final in 20 years. In both games though, a mighty Toulouse outfit came out on top.
On Saturday, Castres will host fifth-placed Montpellier – the teams’ third consecutive meeting at this stage of the season – after bringing a losing bonus point home from a potential banana-skin encounter at Racing Metro on the last day of the regular league season.
“A home quarter-final would be great for us as a team and would also give our supporters a final match to enjoy at Pierre Antoine,” said Samson before the game which Castres lost 29-28. Nevertheless, it was job done.
Victory against Montpellier in front of their home crowd would see Samson pack down against Clermont, the side he won the coveted Bouclier de Brennus with in 2010, in the semis. The French international is under no illusion as to how tough both assignments will be. “It’s going to be hard as every team is playing at a similar level, so it will come down to minor details,” he admits. “We need to be as precise as possible. It’s knockout rugby.”
Castres boast a squad that is good enough to worry any team on the day. In South African scrum-half Rory Kockott they have this season’s second highest scorer with 326 points from 25 games – just 24 points behind Jonny Wilkinson – and so often the focal point for players like Max Evans and ex-Gloucester flyer Marcel Garvey to feed off.
Once the Lions tour is over, Evans’s countryman Richie Gray will be joining the Tarn-based outfit; a move Samson says is great for the club despite the fact they may be rivals for the No 4 shirt. “We are losing Joe Tekori (Castres lock and captain, leaving to join Toulouse), who is an integral member of the team,” he adds, “so to recruit a player of equal calibre – we can see that in his good performances for Scotland – is great for the squad going forward.”
Whilst Gray is off taming Wallabies, Samson hopes to maintain his presence in the French squad that he was called up to last summer. Argentina were the opponents then and after starting against both England and Ireland in this year’s Six Nations he’s dead-set on taking on what is his biggest international challenge to date – the All Blacks.
“They are world champions, have always had iconic players and have been the team to beat in world rugby for a good few years. To play them, especially on their own turf, would be a memorable experience in any rugby man’s career, so I hope to be part of the journey.”
He’s already got the French media on his side, with France’s famed rugby paper Midi Olympique awarding him the accolade of Best Player in France for the month of March. It’s an award that he says is testimony to Castres’ season – a season which has just reached the business end.