This seventh Heineken Cup tournament has been crying out for a significant statement from someone, and that someone turned out to be Castres. The Frenchmen, so disenchanted with their domestic form that they pointed their long-serving coach Alain Gaillard towards the exit door after a championship defeat in Bordeaux last weekend, obliterated Harlequins with a near faultless all-court display at the Stoop Memorial Ground yesterday. A few more sackings of that quality and they will conquer Europe with their eyes shut.
A season ago, Castres got the Heineken badly wrong both on and off the field. Having signed Norm Berryman when the Lomuesque New Zealander was distinctly on the podgy side, they played him before he was properly registered, were docked a point as a result and slipped away to nothing before the end of the pool stage. A year on, they are far more clued in. They very nearly won in Munster in the opening round of matches – a sure sign of a useful side – and the promise they showed in southern Ireland blossomed into full flower in south-west London.
Behind early to a searing solo score from Dan Luger, who stood up Ugo Mola with a perfectly realised in-and-out routine before touching down under the posts, the visitors dominated the next hour to open up a 36-10 lead. Gregor Townsend, a star when Scotland thumped Ireland at Murrayfield a month ago, was on top of things once again, and his unique brand of midfield jiggery-pokery gave Berryman, now fully fit, all the time and space he required to blast horrible great holes in the Quins defence. There was also some vigorous, uncomplicated running from the two wings, Olivier Sarramea and the former Scottish international Shaun Longstaff.
But the real damage was done at the coalface by a Castres pack in which Raphael Ibanez and Arnaud Costes, Tricolore internationals both, spearheaded a forward effort that should cause serious alarm from Limerick to Leicester and everywhere in between. Not content with out-scrummaging their opponents and out-manoeuvreing them at the line-out, they also smashed them to smithereens at the breakdown. The physical engagement around the tackle ball was as intense as anything seen in the tournament thus far, and it quickly became evident that Quins could not stand the heat.
John Kingston, the Quins coach, was his usual honest self as he considered the unpleasant implications of a thorough pasting. "It may be that we have too many players in our starting line-up whose instinct is to play a loose game," he said. Spot on, Mr Kingston sir; had Nick Burrows, Bill Davison and, in particular, Roy Winters taken the field at kick-off time, the Castres collective might have had less of a free ride in the rucks and mauls. As it was, they spent the entire 80 minutes on the front foot and were rarely forced into a situation where an error was conceivable, let alone likely.
Castres were a full score up at 17-10 on 28 minutes when Berryman, as wide as he is long and hacked out of granite, scored the first of his two tries – a no-frills finish following a cleverly worked line-out move involving Nicolas Spanghero, Brent Moyle and Ibanez and a typically wondrous pass from Townsend. Six minutes into the second half, the Big Man was on the board again, taking advantage of another Townsend special to chip and chase his way to the line.
Harlequins: Tries Luger, White-Cooper; Conversions Mapletoft 2; Penalty Mapletoft. Castres: Tries Longstaff 2, Berryman 2; Conversions Townsend 2; Penalties Townsend 5.
Harlequins: R O'Neill; M Moore, W Greenwood, N Greenstock (N Burrows 60), D Luger; M Mapletoft, S Bemand; J Leonard, K Wood, J Dawson (A Olver 48), G Morgan (capt), S White-Cooper, P Sanderson, T Tamarua (R Winters 48), A Diprose (W Davison 48).
Castres: U Mola (O Gargallo 64); S Longstaff, E Artiguste, N Berryman, O Sarramea; G Townsend, A Albouy (T Teulet 48); L Toussaint (D Dima 62), R Ibanez (capt, R Vignaux 58), B Moyle (L Tsabadze 73), F Laluque, N Spanghero, A Costes, I Lassissi, C Fernadez Lobbe (G Taussac 56).
Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).Reuse content