Castres coach Joe El Abd has lifted the lid on his side’s stunning Top 14 triumph last season and revealed some of the secrets to their success.
El Abd’s side endured a rollercoaster of a campaign and only just scraped into the play-offs with victory in the last round of the regular season.
With victory they became the first side to claim the prestigious French title having entered the play-offs as the lowest seed.
Tries from Julien Dumora and Steve Mafi and the boot of Benjamin Udapilleta proved pivotal on a memorable night in Paris but El Abd insists the foundations for their success were laid many months earlier.
“My favourite French rugby quote is from Jean-Pierre Rives,” explained El Abd, a former Bristol favourite who began his coaching career with Oyonnax before following his boss Christophe Urios to Castres in 2015.
“Le rugby, c’est l’histoire d’un ballon avec des copains autour et quand il n’y a plus de ballon, il reste les copains.
“The translation into English doesn’t do it justice, it basically states that rugby is a story about friends playing with a ball and when the ball is no longer there it’s just the friends that remain.
“The team spirit is also really important to us, it’s the way we see rugby. We haven’t got the biggest budget, we have the 11th biggest budget in the league, and while we have still got some very good players we have to think about how we are going to compete against what are literally international teams.
“You can clearly see how high the level of competition is and so we have to ask how are we going to beat these guys and gain an advantage? One of those ways is by having a team spirit that means we are greater than the sum of our parts.
“How do we work that? It is something we work on all the time but we start the season with our ‘Olympiades’, which is a bit of a tradition where we try to take them out of their comfort zone.
“We don’t just do team building, we want to see how they behave in certain situations, and this year for example we had a theatre performance.”
The players and their families were divided into groups, given a working title of ‘What are the values of an Olympian?’ and tasked with putting on a show – with a little help from the local amateur dramatics club.
“The quality of the productions were incredible considering they had limited drama experience and only had three weeks to prepare,” enthused El Abd. “In the end the theatre was packed with over 700 people and I think the players even surprised themselves in what they achieved.
“The boys could easily have said, ‘what am I doing this for? I am a rugby player, I don’t want to be an actor!’ But it is not about that, it is about sacrificing something for the team, taking yourself out your comfort zone and all that helps when it comes to building bonds and links with each other.”
El Abd is also adamant that you must continue to nurture this side of your team and ‘water the flower’ throughout the season.
“It is equally important to keep it going, you can take your eye off the ball quite easily and I think we did that at times and when you do that I think you pay the consequence.
“We never want a player to feel like he is going to ‘work’ as that is the opposite of the experience we are trying to create.
“Our strategy was simple, spend more time with each other outside of the rugby setting and put smiles back on faces. I really don’t think it matters what you do. Sometimes we think that we are always spending time together due to the fact we train with each other everyday, however, I don’t think this time together always counts.”
El Abd also revealed that key changes to the team’s leadership group had a hugely positive impact on the squad and their subsequent success.
“The first tough decision we made was to change the composition of our leadership group,” he said. “This is never easy as you don’t know how people are going to react to such decisions.
“In the end the decision justified itself as the players no longer in the group went on to have great seasons and managed to lead in a different way. The ‘new’ inductees were also excellent and blossomed with the new responsibility.”
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It was up to the leadership group, or Les Conseil de Sages, to set and push standards on an off the field and they would meet regularly with coaches to discuss preparation, any potential problems and the key messages to relay to the rest of the playing squad.
“We didn’t leave a stone unturned,” said El Abd. “We would also discuss game scenarios and how we would react to certain situations. We often practice scenarios in training and it was good to discuss this to put everyone on the same page.”
This policy of putting players at the centre of proceedings extended to game-time with the use of huddles or ‘circles’, that were implemented to ensure everyone was in sync and focused.
“A great story highlighting the impact of our leadership, the conseil de sages, and the ‘circle’ was in the quarter-final against Toulouse,” said El Abd.
“We had previously discussed the possibility of getting a red card and how we would react to such a situation and as if by magic, our hooker got a red card with 20 minutes to go!”
“Our captain, having been prompted to think about such a situation the night before, called a circle and went on to recount the story of how Racing had beaten Toulon in the final in 2016 with 14 men and how we were going to do the same.
“He communicated in clear terms the principles we needed to follow in the final 20 minutes. He was calm, he gave belief the rest of the team belief and outlined what needed to be done.
“Sometimes you can lose focus and go off plan, but because we had talked about it, it helped us stay on plan and win the game and if we hadn’t won that game we would not have been champions.”
With some daylight now between their final victory and now, has the team’s incredible achievement hit home?
“It was fantastic,” recalled El Abd. “We often talk about the journey and it wasn’t all plain sailing. We haven’t got all the answers and we rode our luck along the way but when I look back it was amazing, especially thinking about the difficulties we encountered.”
“Did we believe we could do it? Yes. We always said that, right from the start that that was what we wanted to do but to actually do it was amazing.”
Plans are already underway for their title defence and El Abd insists Castres have no intention of resting on their laurels.
“If you look at history, it has often been tough for the champions but the last time Castres were champions they got to the final the following year. It is tough but it is also possible to have a great season.”
Are the champions likely to repeat the process of this year?
“If repeat the process is continually look to develop, look to get better, then yes, we will repeat that process. We will not be repeating the season we just had as that would mean we would be standing still. So we will be looking to continue our process, keep looking to get better all the time.”