HIS memories of that day have not diminished with time. Matthias Rolland remembers the cheers from the 200 or so Montauban supporters as scrum-half Petre Mitru’s penalty sailed through the posts, to put the French side 16-17 up with just minutes left on the Thomond Park clock. Here they were, the minnows of French rugby, putting the 2008 European Champions to the sword.
In the end, it wasn’t to be for Rolland and his merry men thanks to a late penalty from Ronan O’Gara, but it wasn’t a bad first taste of Heineken Cup action for the second row from Dijon.
“That’s rugby, you know. Sometimes it’s not to be, you shrug it off and pick yourself up. That’s the way it goes,” says Rolland of his Thomond Park experience.
The 32-year-old is in his third season with Castres, a club, who like Montauban, have always lay in the shadow of Toulouse. But that’s where the similarities end between the two towns these days; financial trouble saw Montauban relegated two divisions in 2009 while Castres finished in the Top 14 play-offs last season and are currently third in this season’s competition. Not surprisingly, Rolland is delighted with les Castrais’ start to the season — apart, of course, from the Heineken Cup defeat to Scarlets last week.
“As a club, we think we are now ready to do something,” he says. “We’ve pretty much had the same group of players for the last three years and we’ve kept on improving every season. Everybody knows the system and where they fit in. That saves time at the beginning at the season and means that your preparation can be quicker and better for every match.
“For me, the bottom line is that I believe that Castres are good enough to compete in both the Heineken Cup and the Top 14.”
Hollow words? Time will tell. Castres have had their moments in the Heineken Cup over the years but there have been far more disappointing memories than good ones. Munster’s last visit to the compact Stade Pierre Antoine ground in 2006 resulted in a 9-46 win for the visitors. This season’s clash has been moved to Toulouse’s Ernest Wallon stadium for financial reasons, much to the disappointment of Castres supporters, not to mention the town’s café and hotel owners.
“Munster are one of the great clubs, up there with the likes of Toulouse and Leinster,” says Rolland. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say Munster are our priority. There’s no doubt we’ll have plenty of motivation when we meet them.”
Rolland treads carefully when asked whether the current Munster side are on a par with the team he faced in October 2008. In his mind, players come and go, as they’ve done at Toulouse but the quality remains constant.
“I don’t think that they’re in decline,” insists Rolland. “They’ve been a really consistent team for such a long time. You’ve got a lot of guys who know each other very well and there aren’t really any weaknesses.
The French side were unlucky not to win at Northampton’s Franklins Gardens last year but the narrow 18-14 defeat clearly gave the men from the Tarn a little bit of a confidence boost. And while Rolland is aware there are no easy matches in Pool 1, there is perhaps a feeling this year that their European form can edge a little closer to their current domestic bliss.
“Obviously we want to win every game and show what we are capable of. Most importantly, I guess, we want to stay undefeated at home. There is no inferiority complex at this club — we’ve been in two quarter-finals. We don’t fear anybody.”