Castres edge out Racing for championship glory
February 19, 2010
Castres coaches Laurent Travers (R) and Laurent Labit (L) have steered their side to the Top 14 summit this season © Getty Images
With fifth entertaining second, Racing Club v Castres at the Stade Colombes - to be televised on ESPN on Saturday afternoon - has a decent claim to be France's match of the weekend, a contest of teams with real ambitions to play in the next year's Heineken Cup and, before that, contenders for the Top 14 play-offs.
It is not only the location, France's home ground for much of the last century, that represents something of a throwback. The oldest spectators may just find themselves thinking back 60 years to 1950, when these two clubs contested the championship final.
France, still recovering from war and only in the early stages of the Trente Glorieuses, the three decades of unprecedented economic change and dynamism that transformed it between 1945 and 1975, was a very different then. So was its rugby.
The final was still, as it would remain until 1974, a provincial affair played - as it was more often than not - in Toulouse. The Stade des Ponts Jumeaux, home of Stade Toulousain and peacetime venue since 1934 staged its 16th and last final, a crowd of 25,000 packing in on a sunny mid-April afternoon - several weeks before the Top 14 manages to conclude matters nowadays. The finalists had fought their way through a demanding competition structure - eight pools of six teams playing each other home and away, with the top four from each qualifying for a 32-team knock-out. Of the final 16 only five - the two finalists, Perpignan, Bayonne and Montferrand (now Clermont) are in the top flight this season. The other 11 included such now-faded powers as Vienne, Limoges, Carmaux (champions a year later), Lourdes and Mazamet.
Castres were at the peak of their history, the culmination of Trois Glorieuses that had seen them win the French Cup in 1948, followed by their first ever championship in 1949. Les petits gris, as Castres were known from the grey in their shirts, drew 3-3 with Mont de Marsan amid a deluge that, Richard Escot and Jacques Riviere have written, created a match 'more like water-polo than rugby'. Still tied after two periods of extra time, the team returned under more favourable conditions the following week, and Castres won 14-3.
Thirteen of the same XV played in the 1950 final. In spite of their success Castres had won only limited recognition from the national selectors. Wing Maurice Siman, a former youth sprint champion whose brother Jacques played alongside him at centre, had played all four Five Nations matches. Their other international regular was the captain Jean Matheu-Cambas, already a national champion in 1945 with his previous club Agen, a back rower whose combination with Jean Prat and Guy Basquet, first formed at international level in 1945, remains one of the finest in French history. Matheu, a powerful and stylish loose forward, had been among the scorers in the defeat of Mont de Marsan.
Racing also had an established giant, at least in terms of playing stature, in scrum-half Gerald Dufau who was an automatic choice for France for most of the first decade after the war, eventually winning 38 caps. True to their traditions as a multi-sports club, they had players with reputations outside rugby - wing Alain Porthault 'la gazelle' ran the 100 metres at the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games while second row Christian Guilbert was a rowing champion whose son Alain, born later in 1950, played 15 times for France in the 1970s.
They were, though, second best on this occasion. Castres' powerful forwards gave them an edge that they exploited to turn into three first-half tries - from Matheu, centre Robert Espanol and wing Armand Balant, who had also scored in both matches against Mont de Marsan a year before. Castres led 11-5 at the break and while Racing had the better of a tighter second half, claiming the only score when Porthault crossed for his second try of the afternoon, it was enough for an 11-8 victory that sealed their second consecutive championship.
Their bid for a hat-trick ended before the play-offs in 1951, with Lyon OU progressing in their place. Racing Club took a minor revenge in 1953, beating them in the first round of the post-season, and were a force for most of the 1950s, regularly thwarted by the great Lourdes team of the era. It was Lourdes who beat Racing when they next reached the final, under Dufau's leadership in 1957 and it was not until after the great scrum-half's career had ended that they claimed the title - their only one between 1902 and 1990 - in 1959.
Racing had a brief reflowering in the era associated with Franck Mesnel, Le Showbiz, gold boots, pink bow ties and quaffing champagne reaching the final in 1987 and winning in 1990. The Castres renewal, with a championship in 1993 and a final in 1995, came slightly later. So 1956, when both made the last eight and Castres reached the semis before falling to Dax, was the last year - until now - that both were serious candidates for honours.
Still, memories live on. Dufau and Matheu are among the French game's historic giants. Versatile Racing fullback Pierre Dizabo, already capped as a centre, went on to have one of the oddest international careers. Dropped by France during 1950, he was recalled at fly-half for a tour of Argentina a full decade later, and scored two tries in three Tests. Referee Charles Durant, only 29 at the time of the 1950 match, was to go on even longer - he was in charge again in 1957, when Lourdes beat Racing and, by now a veteran, when Lourdes won their final title in 1968, edging out Toulon on tries after a 9-9 draw.
The longest shadow of all is cast by Castres second row Jean Pierre Antoine, a try-scorer in the 1948 French Cup final, whose conversion completed the scoring in 1950. Six years later he collapsed and died from a heart attack while playing in a match for Castres. His mother reportedly said that 'he loved the club too much, and died for it'. His name lives on, in the title of their home ground, the Stade Pierre Antoine, now as then one of the toughest places to visit in French rugby.