The weekend sees a Top 14 semi-final double-header in Nice, with Castres facing Toulouse on Friday night before Bordeaux take on Montpellier on Saturday.
Of the four clubs remaining, Castres is by far the smallest, both financially and in terms of origin city. Back in October they travelled to Toulouse, who were top of the table at the time, and took a 41-0 pasting.
But the unfashionable club from the Tarn region worked its way back from that and ended top of the pile a fortnight ago, meaning the team has had a week off to prepare while Toulouse had to face Champions Cup winners La Rochelle.
It’s been brutally hot in Nice this week, as it has across most of southern Europe. Kick-off is at 9pm local time, which should help, but for the heat coming from the base of Toulouse scrum in the shape of Antoine Dupont, there is no meteorological mitigation.
“The plan? We’re going to make him eat frozen pizzas just before the meeting,” said Castres Manager Pierre-Henry Broncan to Midi-Olympique.
“No, seriously, we know their strengths and weaknesses. We’re not going to change our rugby because we’re in the semis. We will rely on what works in our game and especially not invent anything.
“We lost 41-0 in the first meeting against Toulouse, and this loss did us good for the rest of the season. We competed better on the return, but the finals matches are different, because of the context, the location, the pressure.”
The two teams are not far away from each other, but the meeting on neutral territory does at least do away with the notion of it being a local derby. And while there is a huge difference in size between the locations – Castres is home to just 40,000 souls – the rugby culture is deeply ingrained in both.
Many of the town’s inhabitants will be heading to Nice, or already there, hoping for a repeat of 2018 when Castres stunned everybody by winning the title. Yet just because it is a small town, Broncan does not see it as an extra challenge.
“We stay within ourselves, the players train but also rub shoulders outside in a very rugby city, where other sports are very minority,” explained Broncan about the town.
“This creates a symbiosis between our supporters, our pro players and the youngest. Sometimes in a club there are several entities, sometimes there is war.
“With us, there is a club and a single president who has been there for thirty years, supported by a big partner who allows a city of 40,000 inhabitants to find a place in the final phase of the Top 14.
“This is the first time we have returned to the semis since 2018. We narrowly failed last season, it was our goal to qualify this season.
“We are a club that is often present over the last 10 years, it is a status that we assume. All the clubs are arming themselves more and more but if it’s hard for us, it’s hard for the others too.”
Castres’ climb up the table has been founded on belligerent defence and a dominating pack, while Toulouse are usually deemed to be a club marked by their backs and champagne skills. But Broncan reminded all of a sobering stat, illustrating the scale of the challenge as he departed.
“A huge challenge awaits us against the Stade Toulouse, the highest pack in size and the heaviest in weight of the Top 14,” he said.
“There are more internationals in Toulouse in forwards than the backs, that probably says it all about their pack.”
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