Top 14: The Top-Six Challenge

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PARIS, FRANCE – The new coaching team at Top 14 side Castres Olympique has set the players an ambitious target – an immediate return to the top six.

But, when he spoke to Rugby Wrap Up, forwards coach Joe El-Abd insisted: “We’ve not set anything in stone – we have already talked about being in the top six.

“We want to get back into the higher echelons of the table.”

Joe El-Abd (left) and Christophe Urios watch a scrum during a training session at Castres' Stade Pierre Antoine

Joe El-Abd (left) and Christophe Urios watch a scrum during a training session at Castres’ Stade Pierre Antoine

It is a big challenge. Castres lifted the Brennus in 2013 and played the part of plucky losers to Toulon in the final that will be forever remembered as the emphatic punctuation to the glorious long goodbye of His Awesome Imperial Galactic Majestic Highness Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson a year later. But they plumbed the depths last season.

Castres secured Top 14 survival on the penultimate weekend of the season, having spent much of the campaign hovering nervously in and around the relegation zone when they weren’t rooted to the foot of the table.

 

Top 14 season to forget

The season to forget prompted the early departures of coaches David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas, who both had a year left on their contracts.

The latter left in February when Argentinian club folk hero Mauricio Reggiardo was parachuted in on a short-term contract to save the club he had played for a decade earlier. The former stayed on until the end of the season.

The writing was on the wall for Darricarrere and Milhas long before Reggiardo arrived. In November Christophe Urios, sporting director at Oyonnax and media-predicted heir apparent to Bernard Laporte at Toulon, had announced he would take over at Castres the following season after eight successful years at the Ain club.

Joe El-Abd talks tactics during training

Joe El-Abd talks tactics during training

El-Abd decided to follow Urios – who, like Reggiardo, had previously played and coached at Castres – and backs coach Frederic Charrier to Stade Pierre Antoine at the end of an epic campaign for Oyonnax, in which they reached the play-offs and claimed a seat at European rugby’s top table in only their second season in the Top 14.

He admitted that Castres’ poor campaign may have focused players’ hearts and minds.

He said: “Obviously last year, Castres had a difficult season, so I guess that has made it a little bit easier from our point of view, because we’re starting from a recent past that hasn’t been that successful.

“We’ve obviously got our ideas and we’ve put them in place. We’ve put a structure in place – but we’re also a staff that likes to share ideas with players. We don’t just bark orders at them, they participate in what we’re trying to achieve.

He welcomed the attitude of his new charges. He said: “The players have been really good. I think everyone’s taken on board what we’re saying and now we feel like we’ve been here for quite some time.”

Castres kick off the new Top 14 season with a difficult trip to free-scoring Bordeaux on August 22, before welcoming three-time European champions Toulon to Stade Pierre Antoine a week later.

Joe El-Abd works with Castres' forwards on a rolling maul

Joe El-Abd works with Castres’ forwards as they practise a rolling maul

El-Abd said everyone at Castres is looking forward to the campaign.

He said: “We’re nowhere near where we want to be, yet. That’s normal – I don’t think any team at the start of the season is where they want to be, but our idea is to continue improving and by the end have had a really strong season.”

 

Difficult Decision

He revealed that following Urios to Castres was not a straightforward decision.

“It wasn’t easy,” he admitted. “I was two years as a player at Oyonnax, and I’d just started coaching, so when Christophe dropped that bombshell after three or four months, it did take a while for me (to decide what to do).”

Oyonnax tried to keep him, even offering him the chance to take over in the big chair. He said: “I had the opportunity to stay, which was obviously very flattering.

“But, after thinking about it, I decided working with Christophe is what I wanted to do – especially at this time in my career. I want to learn as much as I can.

Players listen to Joe El-Abd's instructions

Players listen to Joe El-Abd’s instructions

“After a couple of weeks of thinking about it, really the decision was quite easy to follow someone of Christophe’s stature.”

He’s happy that he has made the right decision – for his career and his family.

He said: “The family are good.

“It’s obviously difficult to move the family. It’s more difficult for them than it is for me – I’ve got 40 players and the staff to look after me.

“But we’re good. We’ve settled in well – and we’re now Castrais.”

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James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"

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