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Harlequins survive late fightback to beat Champions Cup opponents Castres

By PA
Tabai Matson /PA

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Harlequins survived a late fightback from Top 14 opponents Castres to open their Heineken Champions Cup account with a hard-fought 20-18 win at Stade Pierre-Fabre.

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Alex Dombrandt was the beneficiary of a well-worked lineout move early in the second half, as he blitzed under the posts from 20 metres out to give the visitors a crucial lead.

Those seven points, and a 72nd-minute penalty for Marcus Smith, looked certain to end the game as a contest.

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The French side were not quite finished, however. Winger Martin Laveau broke through a packed defensive line to score from the restart and set up a tense finish.

But, as they pushed forward in search of an unlikely win, one final penalty was enough for the visitors to clear their lines, and head home with four crucial points.

Castres – in their first Champions Cup outing since the 2018-19 season – had named a very different side from the one that picked up a bonus-point win over Racing 92 in the Top 14 a week earlier.

Head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan opted for experience, bringing back long-term halfback partners Rory Kockott and Benjamin Urdapilleta, while Thomas Combezou partnered Pierre Aguillon in midfield.

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Those four players alone contributed 138 years to the overall age of the hosts. At the other end of the experience table, Jack Whetton – son of club great Gary – made his first start having joined on a short-term contract in October.

A simmering first half ended 11-7 in favour of the hosts, as the English champions found out the hard way, just as Racing had done eight days previously, that Castres’ defence is not easily broken down.

Harlequins spent much of the first period hammering away at the Top 14 side’s defensive line – Smith turned down no fewer than three gettable penalties in favour of kicks to touch.

But it took them over half an hour to register their first points of the game. It was third time lucky for Quins, who had again refused easy points after Castres’ scrum, under pressure all evening, was penalised just outside their 22.

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The Top 14 side defended the resulting lineout well, but the ball broke on the short side to Louis Lynagh, who had a simple run-in to the corner. Smith converted from out wide.

Castres – the last Top 14 side to lose to Harlequins in the Champions Cup in 2015 – had earlier surprised the visitors after an opening 20 minutes mostly played in their half.

Harlequins failed to deal with a kick ahead and chase from Urdapilleta, who caught Smith five metres from his own line, forcing him to pass rather than clear.

The following clearance from Lynagh only found the hosts’ winger Filipo Nakosi, who threaded his way easily through the Quins’ defence before passing to Josaia Raisuqe to score on his first ever start at seven.

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