An incredible effort from the Ospreys saw them come within inches of claiming an unlikely victory against the French champions on Friday evening, but they had to settle for a losing bonus point.
They played a quarter of the game a man short, with a man sent to the sinbin in each half but, with the clock showing time, an incredible last few minutes saw Castres holding firm against a last-gasp Ospreys onslaught despite receiving two late yellow cards themselves as they managed to cling on for a hard fought vicory.
Written off as no-hopers by most observers ahead of the game against the side that currently sit third in the T14 table, the Ospreys put in an inspirational defensive performance before almost stealing it at the death.
Dan Biggar got the game underway following an impeccably observed minute’s silence for former South African President, Nelson Mandela, who passed away on Thursday.
After a couple of early half-breaks from winger Aisea Natoga, it was the outside half who almost handed his team the lead inside 130 seconds, his drop goal attempt from 25m out coming back off the upright.
He had more luck just a couple of minutes later though, slotting over a penalty from the right hand side after a Castres offence at the first scrum of the match.
The hosts should have equalised four minutes later, a penalty on the left awarded after the Ospreys illegally halted a Castres rolling maul from a lineout, but the usually reliable South African number nine, Rory Kockott was off target.
The Ospreys suffered a setback in the 10th minute when they were temporarily reduced to 14, Natoga sent to the sin-bin by Peter Fitzgibbon for what was adjudged a deliberate knock-on as he stepped in to try and cut out a pass to Remy Grosso some 35m out, 15m in from the right touchline.
It handed Kockott another sight of the posts, but again he was off target, pulling his kick across the face of the posts and wide to the left.
It was third time lucky for the Castres scrum-half though as he brought up the 15 minutes with a three pointer from a central position 45m out after the Ospreys had been penalised at the breakdown.
The visitors looked as though they had carved their way through the Castres defence thanks to Biggar’s little dink over the top which Tom Isaacs collected well before feeding Ben John, only for Isaacs to be ruled in front of the kicker, the referee bringing play back to the halfway line for a Castres penalty. Fortunately, Kockott’s attempt from just inside his own half dropped just short, his third miss from four kicks.
Restored to 15 following the return of Natoga, Biggar was able to nudge the Ospreys back in front with 22 minutes on the clock, ignoring the raucous French crowd to slot his second successful penalty.
A lengthy spell of Castres pressure followed, with the French team working through numerous phases without managing to find a way through resolute Ospreys defence. Eventually, they settled for another three points from the boot of Kockott following an offside decision, to level things 32 minutes in.
As the interval approached the contest was being played out primarily in between the 22s with neither team able to take control, leaving it all-square as the teams went in at the break.
HALF-TIME: CASTRES 6 OSPREYS 6
The Ospreys defence had to be at its very best early on in the second half after Brice Dulin ran a loose clearance kick back at them from halfway, skipping past several half challenges before being hauled down by Ben John.
Castres piled the pressure on, inching closer to the line, but they were unable to make the most of a two-man overlap on the left as the Ospreys scrambled across to cover. As Castres came back infield, a big hit on Romain Cabannes eventually forced a knock-on, allowing the Ospreys to clear from the ensuing scrum in the shadow of their own posts.
Seven minutes after the restart, Aaron Jarvis was penalised at a scrum in a central position just outside the Ospreys 22, giving Kockott a simple kick to put his team in front for the first time.
A turnover by Castres on the left then allowed the hosts to apply more pressure on the Ospreys, moving it across field with menace, but again they were unable to breach the white wall close to the line. A try seemed inevitable when it was spun back to the left only for Cabannes to knock on as he attempted to gather just inches from the left touchline with the tryline beckoning.
With the game moving into the final quarter there was only three points in it but the Ospreys were finding it harder and harder to get any kind of meaningful possession as the French champions took control of the game, which now was being played mainly in and around the visitors 22. Only an incredible workrate and impressive physicality was keeping Castres at bay at this point, with John’s tackling particularly impressive while the Jones’, Alun Wyn and Ryan, were putting in their usual inspirational performances.
The Ospreys were again reduced to 14, for the second time in somewhat harsh circumstances, when replacement Sam Lewis was sent to the sinbin just minutes after joining the action, after Mr Fitzgibbon ruled he went off his feet at a ruck. From the resulting penalty, Kockott was able to stretch the Castres lead to six points.
Lewis returned to the fray with no further damage on the scoreboard, and almost instantly, despite having spent almost the entire second half on the back foot, the Ospreys were back within three with just six minutes to play, Biggar with his third penalty after Castres were penalised at the scrum.
However, just a minute or so later, James King was guilty of holding onto the ball in front of his posts, and Kockott had the simplest of kicks to take Castres back six points clear.
With just four minutes on the clock, and having failed to threaten the opposition line all game, an Ospreys victory seemed unlikely at this stage, but an incredible final few minutes saw the region coming agonisingly close.
Having won a scrum penalty on halfway the Ospreys opted to tap and go, building momentum as they edged into the Castres 22. A second penalty offence was awarded and when advantage failed to materialise play was brought back for another penalty and a yellow shown to Geoffrey Palis. The late onslaught continued as the clock moved past 80, and another deliberate offence at the ruck resulted in a second Castres yellow, Seremaia Bai heading to the bin.
Isaacs almost found a way over the line and the forwards pounded forward with the pick and drives that saw Alun Wyn Jones and Richard Hibbard stopped short, but Castres were able to hold firm, the final penalty of the match inches from the line going to the home team, allowing them to put the ball out before celebrating their hard fought win with huge relief.