If you drive up from Spain the first three towns you hit in France along the A9 are three big rugby strongholds … Perpignan, Narbonne and Beziers.
The Bouclier de Brennus, the French championship trophy, has been carried home to those three bastions on 20 occasions.
Perpignan won their seventh as recently as 2009, Narbonne their second in ’79, while Beziers, the third most successful in the country with 11 titles, dominated French rugby and won 10 crowns in 15 years to 1984.
All three of them now languish though in the ProD2 and with the possible exception of Perpignan, are unlikely to climb back to the Top 14 any day soon unless some sugar-daddy arrives into town with a big wad of money.
What has been noticeable in recent years in France is not so much how rugby has switched to the big urban areas but how the billionaires have emerged in the main cities to fund professional teams.
Lyon, who are at the summit of the Top 14 as we enter this block of European games, are a classic example.
Rugby has always been strong in that part of France but it is only now that they are starting to make an impact in the professional era.
It’s the same in most of the big cities. Jacky Lorenzetti’s millions have seen Racing emerge to rival Stade Francais in Paris, Bordeaux-Begles, another area with a rich tradition, are contenders, while Mohed Altrad is funding Montpellier to rival traditional bastions such as Toulouse and Clermont Ferrand.
Marseille is probably the only major city without its own rugby team but Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has been tapping into the market there and into Nice, moving games to both cities.
It’s become more and more of an urban game. Then there are the strugglers from the small towns. Brive, Agen and Oyonnax look to be in a three-way battle to avoid the two relegation spots, last year it was Grenoble and Bayonne who made the drop.
Castres, who Munster face tomorrow, are the exception to all of that.
Their town and their base is no bigger than the Brives and Agens of this world, they don’t have anything like the resources of nearby clubs such as Toulouse or Montpellier.
But yet they have always found a way to battle with the big boys, landing four French titles against the odds, the most recent coming in 2013 when they shocked Toulon 19-14. They even got back to the final the following year when Toulon got revenge. A year later they were nearly relegated.
At the moment they are the best, by far, of the small town clubs and keeping that and challenging the moneyed-operations remains their primary task.
They are an enigma as much as any of the French clubs. Two weeks ago they defeated champions Clermont 29-23 at Stade Antoine Pierre. They then sent the same starting 15 to Brive last weekend and were ousted 27-22 by a team which had lost every match this season.
That defeat, their fifth in seven league games, leaves Castres in a precarious position, lying 11th and just six points above the relegation zone.
South African centre Robert Ebersohn said after the match that when they sat down at the start of the season they set European success on the same level as the Top 14. Not many French teams do that, the domestic league is all that matters as that is where all the millions come from.
Ebersohn, who has been skippering them in recent weeks, was no doubt genuine in their pre-season declaration.
But, you suspect, the goalposts have changed now. They don’t want to become the next Perpignan, Narbonne or
Conquering Europe can wait for another day. They will have a crack off Munster tomorrow, make life difficult, but in two weeks’ time they will host neighbours and relegation-threatened Agen in the Top 14 and that’s where Castres priorities lie at the moment, regardless of what soundbites they are making about Europe.
They have seen what can happen to the small-town clubs. Castres are survivors.
Munster should have their way tomorrow.
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