Castres look set to see their Top 14 title reign come to an end when they face Clermont in Saturday's second Top 14 play-off.
Castres look set to see their Top 14 title reign come to an end when they face Clermont in Saturday's second play-off at Parc de Sports Marcel Michelin.
Castres fans will be clinging on to the hope of a repeat of last year's semi-final, when les Tarnais shocked a Clermont side still reeling from their defeat in the Heineken Cup final.
This time around Clermont will have had a fortnight – and home win against Perpignan – to digest their latest failure in Europe. More importantly, this time they host CO at fortress Michelin, where their 76-game, four year unbeaten record speaks for itself.
Indeed les Juanards, who once again topped the attacking stat charts at the end of the regular season, will start as the overwhelming favourites against a Castres side that has claimed just a singe victory in 13 away games this term.
For Clermont, this play-off – for the right to play a semi-final against Montpellier in Lille – offers the opportunity for solace after that humbling at the hands of Saracens at Twickenham.
“The whole club was affected, it's normal, the whole region as well because we feel that there's a strong identity behind us,” acknowledged Clermont backs coach Franck Azema.
“When there's joy it's shared, and when there's hardship or frustration, it's the same.
“But the best thing is to rebound in the Top 14 play-offs. Even a one-point victory would suffice, but once again it'll be tough.
“We played Castres a month ago and it was complicated. We suffered for an hour before making the difference.
“But we work all season for these knock-out matches, we know the cards will be re-dealt from this weekend.”
The play-off, Azema said, was “a good thing for us because we need to string together matches to have a winning spirit.”
“We've worked a lot physically to get to this period. I don't think we're too done-in, rather there are some players fresher than last season, and I hope that'll be the case on Saturday because it's now that we have to push the limits and enjoy ourselves together.”
Castres have a much-changed backroom staff since their victory last season, as joint coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers having departed for Racing-Metro.
The team now has a 33-year-old manager in former captain Matthias Rolland, a 43-year-old backs coach in David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas, 49, in charge of the forwards.
“It's true that it's a new trio,” said Rolland.
“But within that trio, we're not out-and-out novices.”
All three have had experiences of play-offs, albeit in different levels of professional rugby, but insist that one thing has been absent in the build-up to the play-offs.
“We want to try not to pile on the pressure throughout the week,” said Darricarrere.
Clermont are expected to welcome back Naipolioni Nalaga, Lee Byrne and Fritz Lee from injury.
Castres will be without loose forward Ibrahim Diarra, who is suffering from concussion.
Clermont have made seven changes to the side that edged Perpignan last week.
Benjamin Kayser starts at hooker while Julien Bonnaire and Damien Chouly return to the back row.
Brock James is at fly-half ahead of Mike Delany while Byrne is preferred to Jean Marcellin Buttin at full-back.
Castres have made six changes to the side that lost in Bayonne last week.
Saimone Taumoepeau and Mathieu Bonello come into the front row for Brice Mach and Yannick Forestier.
Richie Gray returns at lock while Piula Faasalele takes over from Diarra. Max Evans gets a start ahead of Marcel Garvey.
Players to watch:
For Clermont: Former All Black Sitiveni Sivivatu will be joining Castres next season. The veteran wing has been outstanding in his time in Clermont but has not been a regular scorer this season. After touching down 10 times in 25 games last season, he has only bagged five tries this term (while conceding three yellow cards). But he remains a class act. In his last game at Marcel Michelin, look out for something special from Sivi.
For Castres: France's first-choice fly-half RÃ©mi TalÃ¨s has a chance to show Blues coach Philippe Saint AndrÃ© that he should start ahead of Fred Michalak during the June tour to Australia. Keeping Clermont pinned back in their own territory will be vital and TalÃ¨s has the boot to do it.
Head-to-head: Castres centre Remi Lamerat has been rewarded for an excellent season with call up to the national team. The incumbent France 12 is Wesley Fofana, who will be eager to show his challenger a clean pair of heels.
Clermont 23-11 Castres
Castres 22 – 22 Clermont
Prediction: Clermont at home? There can be only one result. Clermont by twelve points
Clermont:15 Lee Byrne , 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurelien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Gerhard Vosloo, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Fritz Lee, 20 Thierry Lacrampe, 21 Michael Delany, 22 Noa Nakaitaci, 23 Clement Ric.
Castres: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Remy Grosso, 13 Romain Cabannes, 12 Remi Lamerat, 11 Max Evans , 10 Remi Tales, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Yannick Caballero, 6 Piula Faasalele, 5 Rodrigo Capo Ortega, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Mathieu Bonello , 1 Saimone Taumoepeau.
Replacements: 16 Brice Mach, 17 Yannick Forestier , 18 Christophe Samson, 19 Jan Bornman, 20 Cedric Garcia, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Seremaia Bai, 23 Mihaita Lazar.
Date: Saturday, May 10
Venue: Parc de Sports Marcel Michelin, Clermont
Kick-off: 16:30 local (14.30 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite