Castres have the unenviable task of facing a Clermont side with a point to prove in their Top 14 semi-final in Nantes on Saturday.
Castres have the unenviable task of facing a Clermont side with a point to prove in the second Top 14 semi-final at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on Saturday.
Despite being left devastated by their narrow loss to Toulon in the European Cup Final, les Jaunards will start as hot favourites – which isn't necessarily a good thing.
Top of the standings at the end of the regular season, the 2010 French champions have featured in the last four every year since 2007, but have lost their last two semi-finals.
Indeed, impressive as Clermont's season has been, they have a nasty habit of getting it wrong when it matters most. Their record of ten lost French finals is unlikely to ever be eclipsed. And while Castres couldn't possibly aspire to competing with l'ASM over the course of a 26-game regular season, they certainly have the arms to do so over 80 minutes, as they showed last October when they became just the second team to beat Clermont in the first 11 games of the season.
Yes, Castres coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers – who will leave for the Racing-Metro next season – will tell their players all the pressure is on Clermont.
CO have made the play-offs every season since the coaching duo's arrival four years ago but have never been able to get past the semi-finals.
On paper Clermont are in a different class and the stats suggest they should romp to a berth in the final at the Stade de France but much will depend on how they have digested that heartbreaking defeat in Dublin.
If Castres can hang on until the final quarter, just do enough to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the Clermont players, then anything is possible.
Castres are in good form having cruised past Montpellier in impressive fashion in their play-off. Their strength lies in a no-frills approach and a very settled team. If they can keep Clermont out, they have a number of kicking options to keep the scoreboard ticking.
However, if Clermont can get on the scoreboard early and boost their confidence, it could be one-way traffic as few teams can live with Vern Cotter's side when they have their tails up. It's Clermont's semi-final to lose.
Despite the hype, Clermont flanker Julien Bonnaire insists that his team would not be underestimating Castres.
“They're not there by chance,” said the ex-France international said.
“They're a complete team. But we're capable of beating whoever.”
Castres have been boosted by the return from injury of three key players, French international prop Yannick Forestier, Samoan lock Joe Tekori and centre Romain Cabannes.
Meanwhile, Clermont are sweating over the fitness of a seven players. Hookers Ti'i Paulo and Benjamin Kayser both have calf injuries. Gerhard Vosloo (knee), Jamie Cudmore (hand), Wesley Fofana (foot) and Morgan Parra (thigh) all missed training at the start of the week.
Players to watch:
For Clermont: Mr. Clermont, AurÃ©lien Rougerie made a stunning comeback from injury last week, creating both of his team's tries. Beyond his attacking role in midfield, the skipper will have a vital job in keeping his side focussed, especially if the scores are close in the dying minutes and those old demons start to emerge.
For Castres: Castres will look to scrum-half Rory Kockott, who is both their top points and try scorer this year to lead the attack. The South African has become a key presence in the side, featuring in 32 games this season, more than any other player.
Head-to-head: The battle between the full-backs could be interesting. Lee Byrne is a consistent performer and solid as they come under the high ball while Brice Dulin is one of the brightest rising talents in France. An untimely injury halted a promising start to his Test career, and up against a veteran international, he'll be given a chance to show off his skills.
05/10/2012: Castres won 16-13 in Castres
09/03/2013: Clermont won 37-10 in Clermont
Prediction: This clash has been billed as a contest between David and Goliath. We'll go with the giant. Clermont by ten points!
Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 AurÃ©lien Rougerie (c), 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 LoÃ¯c Jacquet, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphael Chaume.
Replacements:16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Nathan Hines, 19 Alexandre Lapandry, 20 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 21 Brock James, 22 Benson Stanley, 23 Daniel Kotze.
Castres: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Romain Martial, 13 Romain Cabannes, 12 Seremaia BaÃ¯, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Remi TalÃ¨s, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Yannick Caballero, 6 Ibrahim Diarra, 5 Rodrigo Capo Ortega, 4 Christophe Samson, 3 Karena Wihongi, 2 Brice Mach, 1 Saimone Taumoepeau.
Replacements: 16 Mathieu Bonello, 17 Yannick Forestier, 18 Joe Tekori, 19 Janie Bornman, 20 Romain Teulet, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Paul Bonnefond, 23 MihaÃ¯ta Lazar.
Date: Saturday, May 25
Venue: Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes
Kick-off: 16.30 (14.30 GMT)
Weather: 15Â°C. Partly Cloudy
Referee: Christophe Berdos
Assistant referees: Patrick PÃ©chambert and SÃ©bastien Minery