The talk of late has been about Toulouse but what of another French club slipping towards the cliff edge? Castres’ fall has been even more precipitous than that of Toulouse, who have been clinging on to respectability for a couple of seasons. Not so Castres. Crowned Top 14 champions in 2012-13, they reached the final again last season and ran Toulon close before the ice-cool composure of Jonny Wilkinson saw the Mediterranean men home.
Four months on and Castres are bottom of the Top 14 with just two victories from their first seven outings. It’s the same win/lose ratio as Toulouse but Castres are propping up the table because of their grisly points difference. Last season they conceded 35 tries in the 26 games of the regular campaign; this season they’ve leaked 20 in their first seven matches.
So what’s gone wrong? There are a number of factors that, combined, have sent Castres into what their international centre, Remi Lamerat, described recently as a “negative spiral”.
First there were the summer departures of several key personnel, notably No 8 Antonie Claassen, prop Anton Peikrishvili and full-back Brice Dulin to Racing Metro, South African loose forward Pedrie Wannenburg to Oyonnax and the retirement of Romain Teulet.
Teulet didn’t actually play much last season but what the veteran winger brought to the dressing room was experience, as did Claassen and Wannenburg. The loss of Claassen was a particular blow because the South African is not only a fine and intelligent footballer he’s also a leader of men, one of those players who commands respect from his teammates.
He’s now using those qualities to good effect at Racing and Castres have found no one to fill the void. Their coaching team of David Darricarrère and Serge Milhas were surprisingly restrained in the summer transfer market, though in their defence the Castres’ budget this season of €19m puts them well down the wealth table, nearly half of the €35m budget at Toulouse’s disposal.
Castres signed a triumvirate of Montpellerians in No 8 Johnnie Beattie, centre Thomas Combezou and prop Paea Fa’anunu but their marquee signing was former All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, lured from Clermont Auvergne where he had scored 16 tries in the last two seasons. Then two days before the start of the new season Castres announced that Sivivatu would be sidelined for three and a half months after shoulder surgery.
Sivivatu isn’t the only Castres’ star to be crocked early on. Yannick Forestier, their vastly experienced Test prop, has yet to be seen after injuring his spine in pre-season, and Karena Wihongi made his first start in Saturday’s defeat to Lyon, the Kiwi front-rower having recovered from a serious hamstring injury.
But a club of Castres’ stature shouldn’t be struggling just because of a few injuries. Toulon have had their problems this season, so too Lyon, Grenoble and Bayonne. They’ve coped.
What about the coaches? Are Darricarrère and Milhas up to the job? Remember that last season Castres just squeezed into the play-offs, finishing in sixth spot, one point above Stade Francais, before embarking on that remarkable run to the final that encompassed a quarter-final victory over Clermont in the Stade Marcel-Michelin (Clermont’s first home defeat in nearly five years) and a semi-final defeat of Montpellier.
Was that run down to good coaching or was it the Castres’ old guard calling on all their experience and dredging up the squad spirit that had been so carefully nurtured by Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, the coaching team who moved to Racing Metro after their triumphant four year tenure climaxed in Top 14 glory? There is a suggestion in some quarters that Darricarrère and Milhas, who arrived from coaching jobs at Agen and Biarritz respectively, lack the innovation and imagination to rebuild Castres in their own image now that the legacy of Travers and Labit has dissipated. “They correspond perfectly to the club’s values,” said team manager Matthias Rolland of the pair when they arrived in the summer of 2013. That’s nice to know, but there’s no magic formula that translates values into victories.
Following Castres’ humiliating 41-16 drubbing away at La Rochelle in round four of this season’s championship a ‘clear-the-air’ meeting was held, the outcome of which was revealing. Amid all the usual sports-speak about digging deep and focusing on the positives, Rolland [the club captain during their title-winning season] gave the coaching team what sounded suspiciously like the dreaded vote of confidence. “The players still believe in the coaching system,” explained Rolland. “But in order to re-discover our confidence and improve our efficiency we’ve got to temporarily simplify our game, make it more direct.”
The change brought Castres a much-needed win at home to Oyonnax the following weekend but Saturday’s 28-18 defeat to fellow strugglers Lyon – a game they were winning 11-9 at half-time – suggest Castres still have a lot of work to do. The news of Rory Kockott’s call-up to the France squad is further cause for concern for the Castres’ faithful; the prospect of losing their scrum-half and goal-kicker on international duty in November and perhaps again during the Six Nations won’t help the club’s fight to move up the table, particularly when fly-half Remi Tales is also in the squad.
“After two seasons of success one might say the squad is resting on its laurels,” conceded Lamerat after the La Rochelle thumping. Asked if he feared Castres could be bound for ProD2 he replied: “I’m not really afraid of relegation for the moment.”
He shouldn’t be, for the season is still young. But Lamerat and his teammates knows Castres must find a way out of this ‘negative spiral’, and soon. It trapped Biarritz in the first weeks of last season and eventually took the 2010 Heineken Cup finalists all the way into ProD2.