Castres were crowned Top 14 champions after beating Montpellier 29-13 at the Stade de France on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Montpellier came into the decider as overwhelming favourites, having topped the log before thrashing Lyon in their semi-final, while Castres had finished sixth before upsetting Toulouse and Racing 92 in the playoffs.
However, it was Castres who played perfect ‘finals rugby’ by winning the physical battle and keeping error-ridden Montpellier pinned in their own half with excellent tactical kicking. Montpellier fought back early in the second half, with a penalty try from a big scrum narrowing the gap to six, but Castres’ defence stood firm from then on and a late try sealed a well-deserved win.
The selection of Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Jannie du Plessis and Bismarck du Plessis meant Montpellier had 293 Springbok Test caps in their starting lineup, more than in the Bok XV (134) that faced Wales in Washington DC later on Saturday. But it was another South African – Castres scrumhalf Rory Kockott – who performed under pressure and came away with a winner’s medal.
Montpellier made a nervous start to the final. Pienaar had slotted his last 17 goal kicks, but hooked a simple penalty attempt early on. While Steyn made no mistake with a long-range effort, three penalties from Castres flyhalf Benjamin Urdapilleta gave the underdogs a 9-3 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Montpellier made several uncharacteristic errors in the first half. Steyn failed to find touch with a penalty and then missed a shot at goal, before Pienaar kicked the ball out on the full. Urdapilleta then slotted another penalty to extend Castres’ lead to nine.
Pienaar got a confidence boost when he slotted a penalty goal, but yet another error from Montpellier – a poor lineout that saw Paul Willemse slap the ball over the deadball line – gave Castres a 5m scrum three minutes before half-time. And they made it count, with fullback Julien Dumora scoring in the right-hand corner. Urdapilleta nailed the conversion to make it 19-6.
Montpellier totally dominated the first 15 minutes of the second half. They twice kicked penalties to the corner and hammered away at the tryline. Castres conceded a string of professional fouls that eventually resulted in lock Loic Jacquet being yellow-carded. A huge Montpellier scrum then saw the Castres pack disintegrate and a penalty try awarded.
Urdapilleta was off-target with a drop goal but crucially slotted a penalty while Castres were down to 14 men to put them ahead by nine.
When Pienaar hooked another penalty to the left with 14 minutes remaining, Montpellier must have realised it was not going to be their night, and so it proved, with Castres scoring a late try through replacement Steve Mafi to secure a fifth Top 14 crown.
Montpellier – Try: Penalty try. Penalties: Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar.
Castres – Tries: Julien Dumora, Steve Mafi. Conversion: Benjamin Urdapilleta (2). Penalties: Urdapilleta (5).
Montpellier – 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Benjamin Fall, 13 Frans Steyn, 12 Alexandre Dumoulin, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Louis Picamoles (c), 7 Kelian Galletier, 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Nico Janse van Rensburg, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili.
Subs: 16 Romain Ruffenach, 17 Gregory Fichten, 18 Jarrad Hoeata, 19 Julien Bardy, 20 Enzo Sanga, 21 Henry Immelman, 22 Joe Tomane, 23 Davit Kubriashvili.
Castres – 15 Julien Dumora, 14 Armand Batlle, 13 Thomas Combezou, 12 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 11 David Smith, 10 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Alex Tulou, 7 Anthony Jelonch, 6 Mathieu Babillot, 5 Rodrigo Capo Ortega (c), 4 Loic Jacquet, 3 Daniel Kotze, 2 Marc-Antoine Rallier, 1 Antoine Tichit.
Subs: 16 Kevin Firmin, 17 Tudor Stroe, 18 Christophe Samson, 19 Maama Vaipulu, 20 Steve Mafi, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Florian Vialelle, 23 Paea Fa’anunu.
Photo: Anthony Dibon/Getty Images