Castres Olympique coach Joe El-Abd has warned his players to expect an ‘unbelievably tough game’ at Thomond Park, writes James Harrington.
His stern words came after the Top 14 champions suffered a shock home defeat against French top-flight strugglers Agen, eight days before their Champions Cup date at Munster.
It was a loss not in the script – and vice-captain Mathieu Babillot voiced the frustration in the camp after a second home defeat this season. “We were far too imprecise. We dropped far too many balls and lacked efficiency. We should have backed up our victory in Perpignan [the previous week] by winning at home.”
The vice-captain’s disappointment was mirrored by forwards coach El-Abd, who tried to put a positive spin on the 13-16 loss – Castres’ first to Agen at home since 2006 — when he described it as a ‘wake-up call’.
“It’s not the perfect preparation for an away game in the European Cup against Munster,” he said. “It’s obviously not what we expected — however it’s a wake-up call and we can expect the challenge will be a lot tougher in Ireland. Sometimes you need a bit of a shock,” El-Abd went on. “We were, obviously, really disappointed with the result, but the only way to go forward was to work hard in training this week.”
The two sides are the oldest of European foes — no two teams have met more often in the competition’s 20-plus year history. The hosts, who are eyeing 11 consecutive European victories on home turf after their five-try bonus-point victory over Gloucester last time out, have comfortably the upper hand over their French opponents, with 10 wins and a draw to their name in 14 meetings to date.
El-Abd insists things will be a little different this time around at Thomond Park. “We’re still in the competition this time,” he said.
“We’ve managed to get off to a good start with a point away and a win at home, so this time we have everything to play for, just like Munster.”
And he pointed to his side’s surprise march to the French domestic title as both inspiration and evidence of what the Tarn club is capable of doing. “No one gave us a chance of winning the Top 14 last season. No one’s going to give us a chance this weekend, either.
“But we’re going to do everything we can — and see what comes of it.”
Castres became the first side to win the Top 14 title after finishing the regular season in the sixth — and final — play-off spot. En route to the title, their second since 2013, and fifth in total — they then beat a rejuvenated Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon for just the second time in 39 years in an intense opening play-off encounter. Then they edged past Racing 92 in a tense semi-final in Lyon, before mugging Montpellier in a final streetfight.
Castres opened their Champions Cup season with a 14-19 loss at Gloucester. But El-Abd said that the result should have been much better for the French side, despite the fact they fielded a side shorn of 12 of their title-winning starting XV — and with ful-lback Julien Dumora filling in at fly-half, and matchwinner scrum-half Kockott on the bench.
“We were disappointed to lose at Gloucester,” El-Abd said. “We had a ‘match point’, near the end with the ball on their line; a driving lineout and a bit of forward play a few metres out. In those circumstances, you really want to convert, and if we’d done that we would have won the match. So we’re disappointed — a win would have put us in a really strong position, especially after we won at home against Exeter with 14 men.
“But it’s our first point we’ve picked up away for a long time — I think we’ve picked up two points out of a possible 30. Given the state of Pool Two right now, that suddenly looks like a good point. It keeps us in the competition, it keeps our hopes alive.
“We love the competition — and now we head to one of the biggest clubs in Europe.”
History is against the French side. In 14 previous attempts, Castres have reached the knockout stages just once.
Unlike several other Top 14 clubs, resources are not unlimited, though the foundation that funds them — set up by their late pharmaceuticals’ billionaire owner Pierre Fabre, after whom their stadium is now named — should keep them financially stable, if not among the league’s deep-pocketed big boys, in perpetuity.
This time, El-Abd insists, players and staff are taking the European competition seriously.
It is part of a long-shot double-title-whammy last hurrah with which the coaching staff hope to bid farewell to the club — and each other.
After four years at Castres, sporting director Christophe Urios – long thought to be a favourite for the France job when Jacques Brunel’s contract runs out after the 2020 Six Nations — will join Bordeaux on a four-year deal in the summer.
El-Abd, meanwhile, is returning to Oyonnax, the club he left in 2015 to follow Urios and attack coach Frederic Charrier to Castres, to take up a director of rugby job for the first time. Charrier has yet to make public his decision — but it is widely expected he will continue to work with Urios at Bordeaux.
Oyonnax-bound El-Abd said that Castres’ long-held reputation for not taking European competition as seriously as they perhaps could should now be seen as ‘a thing of the past’.
“Christophe, Fred and I have taken it seriously for as long as we’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve been in with a shout coming into the last round of the pool stage each time.”
As well as defending their Top 14 title, Castres are looking to go further in the Champions Cup, he said. “There’s definitely been a conscious decision this year to take Europe as seriously as the Top 14. It probably hasn’t been like that in the past… not that we haven’t taken it seriously, but we’ve always seen the Top 14 as the more important competition.”
To reach the knockout phase for only the second time in their history, Castres will have to win one of their two remaining away games.
The first is this weekend, at Thomond Park. The second is on January 13, at Exeter’s Sandy Park.
El-Abd said: “This year, after having won the Top 14 against the odds, we want to do France proud as champions — and the best way to do that is to attack every game as it comes.”