Leicester Tigers were beaten 39-0 at Castres Olympique in the European Champions Cup on Sunday.
In the fifth round of fixtures in Pool 4 and on the club’s first-ever visit to the Stade Pierre Fabre in the south of France, Tigers trailed from the first minute when fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta hacked loose ball up the left touchline to score.
Two tries from centre Thomas Combezou stretched the Castres lead to 27-0 by half-time, though a much-changed Tigers team had been competitive throughout and also had their opportunities close to the trryline, most obviously when Sam Harrison was kept out in a moment which cost Armand Batlle a yellow card but ultimately saw the away team unrewarded for their efforts.
A fourth try, from wing Batlle ensured the points would go to the hosts, though Tigers continued to plug away and had several attacking opportunities without reward before the Castres No11 claimed the final try of the evening in the 78th minute.
Tigers were without England players Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Jonny May and George Ford ahead of the Six Nations, while Logovi’i Mulipola, Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi, who have all returned to action in recent weeks after lengthy injury absences, were also left out.
Dominic Ryan, Tom Brady and Pat Cilliers returned after injury, with Greg Bateman named as captain for the first time. Michele Rizzo, on his return from a loan spell at Edinburgh, returned to take a place among the replacements.
Castres got the game under way on a damp evening and had an immediate score, fly-half Urdapilleta claiming a try with just 46 seconds gone on the clock.
His grub-kick near halfway was fielded by Tigers but squirmed free near the touchline and Urdapilleta dribbled it onwards before picking up to score. He added the conversion too for a 7-0 advantage.
Tigers recovered well, playing through a series of phases in attack and carrying up to the 22 where Charlie Thacker and Harry Wells made half-breaks before the home side forced a turnover and cleared upfield.
There was a break for skipper Bateman to receive treatment to a facial cut after the referee whistled for a knock-on when Thacker charged down a chip from Urdapilleta, but the prop was back on his feet as the visiting pack were awarded a penalty at the scrum.
Tigers again enjoyed some good possession but lost ball on the front foot and, when the hosts built through the forwards, they were rewarded with a penalty in front of the posts and Urdapilleta kicked to make it 10-0 with quarter of an hour played.
There was more of the same as the game five minutes later with Tigers again penalised in defence and the Castres No10 kicking the points.
A second Castres try came from a counter-attack, initiated by full-back Geoffrey Palis after Tigers had kicked upfield. When his kick evaded the cover, wing Batlle offloaded for Combezou to run in. The conversion made it 20-0 with 25 minutes played.
Bateman’s interception on halfway had the visiting supporters on their feet and Castres back-pedalling, but when Joe Ford kicked to the left corner, Charlie Thacker was unluckily penalised as he challenged Marc-Antoine Rallier on the tryline.
The visitors stayed in Castres territory, though, and a huge push from the forwards was brought down just short of the line. With the referee playing a penalty advantage, play switched to the right and George Worth was closed out a few metres short before the referee raised his arm again. This time Tigers were unable to set up a platform and Castres cleared.
There was a major talking point moments later when Sam Harrison ripped ball away from a maul and raced towards the tryline, only to be tackled just short. As Harrison hit the ground, the referee penalised Castres and Batlle was sin-binned. After consultation with the TMO, referee Brace took no further action and play restarted with Tigers kicking a penalty into the right corner.
Again Tigers set up a drive for the line, but the home defence swarmed all over Harrison to disrupt ball and eventually gained their own penalty just outside their 22.
Castres showed their clinical finishing again in the final minute of the half as they made good use of ball from Mathieu Babillot’s carry and, when they recycled on the left, No8 Alex Tulou offloaded for Combezou to score next to the right-hand post. Urdapilleta’s extras stretched the lead to 27 points.
The half ended with Tigers again pushing for the tryline from a penalty into the right-hand corner, only for the hosts to win turnover ball when Will Evans fund himself isolated in possession five metres from the line. Asd they recycled Urdapilleta chipped the ball into the crowd behind the posts to bring the half to a close.
Tigers started brightly in the second half, too, but lost a promising platform with a knock-on at the breakdown and then with a penalty in attack as Harry Thacker cleared at the side of a ruck after more good work from younger brother Charlie
Castres grabbed their bonus-point try in their opening attack of the half, keeping ball alive on the left with the Tigers defence working hard on their own line, and Batlle eventually darting over to score. Updarpilleta could not maintain his perfect kicking record as his conversion attempt from the touchline came back off the post, though his side led 32-0.
Bateman and Harry Thacker continued to carry prominently as Tigers looked for forward momentum and a breakthrough but another potentially threatening position was lost when a penalty into the right-hand corner ended with the referee blowing in Castres favour at the lineout.
Tatafu Polota-Nau, Ben Betts, Brendon O’Connor and Nick Malouf joined the action on 55 minutes and the Australian hooker was immediately in the action with a crunching hit on Urdapilleta. The French crowd did like the look of it, though Tigers already had a penalty award and kicked into the right-hand corner yet again.
The drive infield brought another penalty and almost a score. Ford tapped for the forwards and when play spread to the right Tom Brady dived over in the corner, only for play to come back for a forward pass.
Harry Simmons got on for his European debut on the hour, as Mafi joined the Castres pack.
The referee’s assistant brought his attention to potential foul play as Tigers prepared for a scrum on the right, with Castres lock Victor Moreaux the centre of attention. but no further action was taken.
Wells and Betts carried as Tigers continued to push for a breakthrough and the penalty count started to rack up against the home side’s defence but they escaped again when a crooked lineout throw gave the hosts a scrum five metres from their own line.
After getting out of their own territory, Castres thought they’d found another score when wing Kylian Jaminet broke clear on the right, only to have play brought back for a forward pass on the 10-metre line.
Michele Rizzo emerged for his seasonal debut, joining European debutant Betts and the experienced Polota-Nau in the front row, and Tigers penned their hosts back for long periods without finding a decisive break.
It was to prove costly when Castres, eho had scored just five second-half points up to that stage, released Batlle to grab his second try with just minutes of the game remaining. Diving in on the left. The conversion from Yohan le Bourhis made it 39-0 with 90 seconds remaining and any final chance of a breakthrough for Tigers evaporated when the kick-off flew straight out in the Castres half.