As draws go, the emergence of Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier to accompany Heineken Cup champions Leinster in Pool 3 seemed to the Mole, like the best of good fortune last summer. For sure, Leinster did not get an Italian minnow (the pleasure reserved for Biarritz it seems) but no Clermont, Racing or even Castres to send a shiver of nerves down the back, at the prospect of a tough away fixture in the frozen weeks before Christmas, seemed like the sort of Champions League start usually reserved for Man U and Barca.
As the appointed week approaches, there are however signs that this may not be as straightforward as the European Champions might have anticipated. Since their auspicious performance in the French Top 14 Final last May, the Montpellier squad have not played together as a team. With 13 players away on World Cup duty, their first six games in the Top 14 have been tough and not very successful. The one game that they were due to have all their returnees together for, last Saturday against newly promoted Lyon, was cancelled due to an outbreak of mumps among the Lyon players.
These are the sort of signs that a French team can often use to justify why “the gods are against us” and resign themselves that it will get better next week. But this is not just a French team. Have a look at the team-sheet from which Fabien Galthié can select and you will see Argentineans side-by-side with Georgians and Fijians, alongside young, eager French men. This is the side that Fabien built and they have been presented with the unique opportunity to debut in the European Cup competition, at home, against the European Champions. What’s more, if they don’t win the game, there is a list of (valid) excuses which the Greek Government would be glad to use at present.
Current League Position
Montpellier: Placed 11th in French Top 14 League Season 2011-12 to date (end October).
Played 9; Won 2; Drawn 1; Lost 6; Points Difference -24; Bonus 4; Points:14
With current points difference and bonus points, Montpellier deserve to be placed at about 8th in the Top 14, ahead of such clubs as Stade Francais and Perpignan. Wins against Toulon and Bayonne and a draw against Stade in Paris are a better reflection of their ability than the one-score defeats by clubs such as Brive, Castres and Perpignan.
For Montpellier, the key decision about this competition is whether they have sufficient confidence in their ability to decide that their full-strength side, after the RWC expedition, would have the ability to make a top six place in the Top 14 championship, or whether they will decide that the ERC Pool games present an opportunity to rest their front rank players in preparation for key Top 14 encounters. This approach might allow them to leapfrog their more renowned opponents such as Perpignan, Stade, Racing and Agen. Already it seems that Clermont, Toulouse, Castres and Toulon will have the strength in depth to take 4 of the six play-off positions.
However, those close to the MHR club indicate that the European adventure is their main target for this season and they certainly consider that the pool is possible to win. This outlook reflects their avid request to the ERC officials before the draw was made that they would wish to stage their first ever game in the competition at home. The request was emphasised more strongly when they drew the European champions in their pool. Thus the meeting of their supporters club on Monday 7th November to prepare for the game against Leinster is not just to check their hospitality arrangements. It is also to prepare an audio assault for their esteemed visitors – such as that experienced by the Blues from Leinster last winter in Clermont.
The style of play favoured by Montpellier Herault Rugby (the full name of the Club with the motto Des vies, un club, une passion) is more akin to Connacht than Leinster. Tight patterns allied to a passionate team and supporters mean that nobody comes away from Stade Yves du Manoir with easy points, or without bruises and bangs. They have an excellent scrum which they use at every opportunity, and a well drilled middle five with half-backs Trinh-Duc and Tomas combining with back-rows Gorgodze and Ouedraogo to attack oppositions from every set-piece. Their line-out was not judged to be top class last season, but it is an effective defensive weapon and they have turned it into a maul base with few equals in the French Club game.
Their Fijian and Argentinean players provide pace and size in the back-line and at full-back Bustos Moyano had a kicking percentage at the 80% level last season.
Montpellier Squad strengths
There are 13 World Cup players in the Montpellier Squad. Trinh-Duc (Fr), Gorgodze (Georgia), Ouedraogo (Fr) may be the household names but to those three should be added the other participants who have contributed to the success of this Montpellier side:
Georgia: Chkhaidze (Flanker), Shvelidze (Prop);
Argentina: Bustos Moyano (Full back and kicker), Amorosino (Winger); Fernandez (Centre), Figallo (Prop), Creevy (Hooker);
Fiji: Nagusa (Winger), Matadigo (Flanker);
Namibia: Marais (Winger)
To these returnees from RWC2011, one should include Remy Martin (Fr – back-row), Privat (Fr – 2nd Row), Jgenti (Georgia – Prop), Lelimalafaga (Samoa – Prop), Julien Tomas (Fr – Scrum-half) and recently signed medical joker back-row from Taranaki, Alex Tuluo who previously played in France with Bourgoin.
Fabien Galthié is the head coach but his assistants Eric Bechu, Didier Bes and Yoan Audrin are important cogs in the wheels of MHR.
The Mole’s Verdict
Although Leinster supporters will not take kindly to the assessment, the Mole believes that Leinster should look at this as a game where a bonus point in defeat could prove vital and be very grateful if they get any more. Galthié is an innovative coach and the Montpellier Squad enjoyed their escapades last season enormously and are a very close-knit group. Saturday’s unique fixture provides them with the only opportunity to leap-frog back onto the horse that charged through French rugby last Season. In front of their passionate supporters, this is a classic opportunity!