AS THE Home Nations gear up for Down Under, across the Channel in France the Top 14 is coming to the boil, writes Gavin Mortimer.
The French domestic season is a bit like Simon Shaw’s career in that one wonders if it will ever end. Ten months after the 2011-12 campaign began we have four clubs left standing.
Saturday’s semi-final pits the reigning champions, Toulouse, against Castres – cue the old cliché about David and Goliath. But how else do you describe a clash between the most consistent club in Europe over the past 15 years (and the winner of 18 French titles) and little old Castres, who won the last of their three championship crowns in 1993?
Incredibly, this is the 19th consecutive season that Toulouse have reached the semi-final stage of the Top 14, a staggering testament to the work of Guy Noves, who’s been in charge for all of that time. As one would expect Toulouse are making all the right noises ahead of the semi. Forwards’ coach Yannick Bru has warned that “Castres know how to stop teams playing by preventing them from getting quick ball”.
They did it last week in closing out Montpellier in the play-off and Bru knows Castres will adopt a similar approach in the semi, looking to slow down the ball so the dangerous Toulouse backline can’t have a run. “Castres have a formidable scrum, one of the best attacking lineouts around and with the likes of [Ibrahim] Diarra, [Yannick] Caballero and [Chris] Masoe – they contest the breakdown like few other sides”.
Castres have exceeded expectations in just making it this far, eleven years after they last played in a Top 14 semi-final. Few neutrals give them much of a chance against Toulouse particularly as they’re without their centre Max Evans (released after the play-off so he could join the Scotland tour to Australia) and back-rower Steve Malonga, sidelined for eight months after rupturing his knee ligaments last week. Castres coach Laurent Travers is happy to play the underdog role, saying earlier in the week “I really hope the pressure doesn’t get to us and inhibit our performance.”
That’s a message similar to the one coming out of Toulon. Last week France’s most star-studded side did just enough to scrape past Racing Metro in the play-off. Jonny Wilkinson had a shocker with the boot, handing over the kicking duties to Matt Giteau, although the Australian has said it was a one-off and Wilko will resume the responsibility on Sunday when they face Clermont in the other semi-final.
Against Racing, Toulon looked like a team crippled by the weight of expectation on their shoulders. The previous week they had lost to Biarritz in the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup and the prospect of another calamitous defeat muddled their handling and their muddied their thinking. Perhaps that’s the reason Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal declared this week that they “have no chance” against Clermont. He added: “If we lose, it will be against a giant, so it wouldn’t be a failure.”
The psychology is simple: get his boys playing with the joie de vivre they showed earlier in the season. Toulon have the talent to beat an admittedly powerful Clermont side but do they still have the self-belief? “We have nothing to lose on Sunday,” insisted Boudjellal who then, rather mischievously considering the money he’s pumped into Toulon, said: “We’re up against a club who are in a different league to us financially.”