Nearly 11 months after it kicked off, the 2017/18 Top 14 season ended with a surprise, when Castres -- against all the odds -- lifted their fifth Top 14 title, and their second since 2013.
Montpellier had come into the showpiece match at Stade de France as hot favourites. There were more South African international caps on show in their squad than at the Wales vs. South Africa match in Washington DC.
But they were outsmarted by a streetwise Castres side. Here, James Harrington recalls the key points and main players in the match that decided the destiny of the Bouclier de Brennus.
Player of the weekend
Rory Kockott. Halfback partner Benjamin Urdapilleta was named man of the match for his 19-point performance. But the Argentinian will be among the first to point to his team-mate in the nine shirt. This match had been billed as a fire-and-ice battle between the Castres scrum-half and his opposite number, Ruan Pienaar -- and Kockott won it hands down. He was in Pienaar's face from first whistle to last, and it quickly became clear he had got into Pienaar's head, too. While Montpellier's normally sub-zero-calm nine wilted under the pressure, Kockott rose to the occasion as he had done in 2013. He marshalled Castres in attack, where he was a clear and present danger, and in defence, where he made a public nuisance of himself from first whistle to last.
Flop of the weekend
Aaron Cruden. As a team, Montpellier were uncharacteristically error-prone. The lineout - normally a reliable weapon of opposition destruction, off which they had scored 51 of their 102 tries coming into the final - malfunctioned. Passes, usually fired with laser precision, were wayward. Their runners - even line-breaking, tackle-busting monsters like Frans Steyn and Louis Picamoles - were smashed backwards. Pienaar and Steyn missed 60% of their shots at goal -- images of the former in bits in the dressing room after the match were heartbreaking. But at least you knew those guys were on the pitch. World Cup-winner Cruden was so anonymous at 10 that it was easy to forget that Montpellier had even bothered to field a fly-half.
Coaching call of the weekend
Finals rarely make for classic rugby encounters -- and this was no exception, but Castres were tactically spot on against a side that was bigger and, on paper at least, had much more big-game experience. Their hit-em-hard, knock-em-back brand of streetwise rugby was more than a match for Vern Cotter's Montpellier. For that, Christophe Urios, Fred Charrier and Joe El-Abd should take full credit. What they organised wasn't pretty, but it was very, very effective. Cotter has now coached a side to the Top 14 final six times since 2007. He has lost four of them.
Refereeing/TMO call of the weekend
Jerome Garces was his usual unflappable self. He was right to reach into his pocket and send Castres' Loic Jacquet to the bin for repeated infringements on their tryline during the solitary period of Montpellier dominance. He was right to award a penalty try minutes later as the Castres scrum simply disintegrated. And he was right -- and brave -- to ignore being accidently bundled over by Frans Steyn five minutes from time. He took the full-force of a blind shoulder charge from the bulky centre, but picked himself up, brushed himself off and was perfectly placed to award Steve Mafi the decisive try seconds later.
Attention monsieur ! Dégages ! pic.twitter.com/O8J4dN230C— greub🐑 (@greub1) June 2, 2018
Storyline to keep an eye on
Plenty of clubs will be keeping a close eye on the state of contract negotiations between Castres and coach Christophe Urios. He's about to enter the final year of a four-year deal at the club, which means he's fair game for approaches from other clubs. And the ground may be fertile. A few weeks ago, Urios indicated he was willing to walk when his current deal runs out at the end of next season if he didn't get certain guarantees concerning the development of the club. Now, with a Top 14 title to his name, his stock has risen even higher. Certainly, within hours, club chairman Pierre-Yves Revol had publicly softened his stance on what had appeared to be an impasse over capital spending limits. The Toulon hotseat may be a no-go -- word is Mourad Boudjellal tried to set up a meeting, but the timescale was impossible as Urios has jetted off to head the coaching set-up of France Barbarians on their two-match tour of New Zealand. But other managerial chairs may be up for grabs.