Cotter’s men had finished top of the table in the regular season before easing past Lyon to book a trip to Paris, while Castres had followed a trickier route to the showdown for the coveted Bouclier de Brennus Shield. They finished sixth before winning against Toulouse in the play-off for a place in the last four and beating Racing 92 to secure a spot in the final.
Cotter went into the game looking to add success with his new club to the title he landed with Clermont Auvergne eight years ago.
However, two of his biggest signings, Aaron Cruden and Ruan Pienaar, both produced poor performances that left Montpellier off the pace against an inspired Castres side. Among his blunders, Pienaar, who had been outstanding in the previous week’s semi-final, fluffed a third-minute penalty attempt then misjudged a touchline clearance and was off the mark with another routine effort at goal in the second period. Montpellier were also guilty of a string of unforced errors, including eight knock-ons, a lost scrum and four Castres steals at the lineout.
“We are disappointed because we just weren’t in the match. We didn’t show our true selves. It’s frustrating”, lamented Cotter, who has worked to add some flair to the solid but one-dimensional style he inherited from his predecessor Jake White.
“Castres played very well and put us under pressure from the start. We weren’t disciplined and we conceded a lot of penalties.
“We were dominated in the rucks and beaten in the key areas. We kicked straight into touch, we didn’t succeed with our kicks at goal, we lost our lineouts”, added Cotter, pictured, who is credited with having created greater unity in the dressing room than existed under White.
“We need to learn from it. It’s the first final for a lot of the team. We will work hard and come back next year having learned lessons”, added Cotter, who is happy with the progress he has made in his first season at the helm as part of a three-year contract.
“I’m pleased with the work we have done in the year since I arrived. We finished first (in the regular season) and then didn’t perform in that match. But we win together and we lose together.
“We now need to digest it. It takes time but I hope that in a month when we come back we can start working towards achieving something next year.”
Castres led 19-6 at half-time after Benjamin Urdapilleta kicked four penalties then converted a try by Julien Dumora shortly before the break. The Montpellier response was a penalty apiece for Frans Steyn and Pienaar.
With Castres second row Loic Jacquet in the sin bin, Montpellier cut the deficit to six points with a penalty try after 55 minutes. However, Urdapilleta calmed Castres nerves with his fifth penalty of the evening and the gap remained at nine points when Pienaar recorded Montpellier’s third penalty miss. And Castres clinched the victory – the fifth in the club’s history and first since 2013 – when Stiveni Mafi touched down and Urdapilleta added the conversion.
It was the first time that a side which had been sixth after the normal league programme has gone on to win the title.
Meanwhile, Finn Russell is set to make his first appearance for Racing 92 against international opposition. Russell, who is not included in the Scotland squad for the summer tour, will link up with the Parisian outfit at the start of July. Racing will embark on a 12-day pre-season training camp in Georgia and will round it off with a friendly against either Georgia or Uruguay in Tbilisi.