Could Montpellier be the Dark Horses of the Top 14?

Montpellier RugbyMontpellier is currently the 8th largest city in France and the countries fastest growing city over the last 25 years. As well as being one of the largest and most vibrant metropolises on the French Mediterranean coast it is also home to Top 14 side Montpellier Hérault Rugby.

Montpellier Hérault Rugby were officially formed in 1986 through the merger of Stade Montpelliérain and MUC Rugby. The club were eventually promoted to the Top 14 in 2003 having won the Pro D2 in the preceding season. Since then Montpellier have won the European Shield in 2004 as well as claiming the Top 14 runners-up spot in the 2011 season. They also moved into Stade Yves-du-Manoir in 2007 after it had been used in the Rugby World Cup that year.

Having been fortunate enough to visit Montpellier last season to watch their Heineken Cup encounter with Sale Sharks I was given the opportunity to watch the team first hand at Stade Yves-du-Manoir where they proceeded to demolish a spirited Sale Sharks side 33-18. Despite Sale putting out a relatively inexperienced side Montpellier showed the kind of class that would have put most top teams in Europe to the sword that day with Francois Trinh-Duc once again leaving fans scratching their heads as to how he still only has 35 caps for his country.

It was not just the teams performance that left an impression on me but the passion and support shown by the fans for their club. Despite initially going behind to a Mark Cueto try the fans support never wavered as they backed their team to the hilt. The supporters beating drum an ominous sound as the Montpellier scrum set about dismantling the opposition at a canter.

Montpellier went on to reach the Heineken Cup & Top 14 quarter finals last year before being knocked out by finalists of each competition (Cleremont and Castres respectively). Despite falling at the first knock-out stage in both competitions the clubs Chairman Mohed Altrad has backed head coach Fabien Galthié with a new contact that lasts into 2017 and an increase in the club’s wage budget by €2 million this year.

Altrad has clearly seen something in Galthié believing he is the man to drive Montpellier forward over the next few years. Perhaps it is the fact that on their day Montpellier are one of the most attractive teams in the Top 14 to watch play rugby or perhaps it is just down to the fact that the club are currently enjoying one of the most successful periods in their relatively short history, either way Montpellier fans have plenty to look forward to in the coming years.

Since the end of last season the club have recruited strongly, plugging perceived weaknesses in the team by bringing in the likes of Scotland lock Jim Hamilton, All Black winger Rene Ranger and French tighthead Nicolas Mas in addition to a host of other exciting talent from around the globe. This internationally capped trio join a team already packed with international talent such as Francois Trinh-Duc, Johnnie Beattie, Mamuka Gorgodze, Fulgence Ouedraogo & Timoci Nagusa.

With a forward pack now consisting of plenty of beef thanks to the likes of Nicolas Mas, Mamuka Gorgodze, Sitaleki Timani and Alex Tulou combined with the athleticism and work rate of players like Johnnie Beattie and Fulgence Ouedraogo the pack look more than capable of steam-rolling most scrums in Europe whilst also being able to compete at the breakdown. The extra size added to the pack will also provide a powerful ball running option that could help to open up gaps for Montpellier’s exciting back line.

The sheer power of Montpellier’s pack is likely to be well complemented by a mix of power, pace and precision in the teams backline. Led by enigmatic Fly-Half Francois Trinh-Duc and complemented by the likes of Rene Ranger, Timoci Nagusa and Robert Ebersohn Montpellier will be equally capable of running over the top of the opposition or running rings around them.

Galthié has a key decision to make in whether to play Ranger on the wing or at 13. Whilst equally devastating in either position, where he is chosen could help to dictate the style of play implemented by Montpellier. At 13 he would form a formidable combination with Ebersohn capable of repelling even the most impressive of backlines whilst also getting the ball out to the wings for Nagusa  and co to take the ball to the opposition.

Whilst still able to perfectly blend solid defence with attacking prowess on the wing I can’t help but feel that based on his current devastating form Ranger is better utilised in the midfield where he will be able to get more time on the ball and can therefore be more effective for his team. Despite not being available for his new club until October Ranger has the potential to be one of the signings of the season having found the kind of form that sees him become a huge loss for All Blacks chief Steve Hansen.

The 9 – 10 axis will also be of equal importance for Montpellier and if Trinh-Duc and Benoît Paillaugue are capable of re-kindling the kind of form they both showed last year then we will really see this Montpellier side tick. Trinh-Duc’s ability to bring others into the game is almost unparalleled in the French league but he needs consistent service from Paillaugue to be at his devastating best. Paillaugue’s form from the kicking-tee could also go a long way to dictating his teams results this year.

Leicester Tigers fans will already be aware of the ability Montpellier posses having being on the receiving end of 52-15 thumping over the weekend. Whilst it was a weakened Leicester team that are several weeks behind Montpellier in terms of their preparations for the new season, the ease with which the French side put the Tigers to the sword, scoring 4 tries in the final 14 minutes, is an ominous warning to all who look to stand in their way.

Whilst a Heineken Cup pool draw featuring Ulster and Leicester is not favourable for Fabien Galthié’s men, the potential for a top 4 finish in the Top 14 and therefore a home draw in the competitions knock-out fixtures appears a real possibility. From there anything is possible for Montpellier who look set to be one of the strongest teams in the competition this season.

One thing that Montpellier really have going for them is that whilst they have recruited heavily, bar the signing of Ranger they have gone largely under the radar during pre-season whilst the likes of Cleremont, Toulon and Racing Metro have to wrestle with a great deal of expectation from the press and fans due to some massive signings over the summer that have drawn plenty of attention.

Whatever happens Montpellier look set to be there or there abouts this season. How do you think they will get on?

 

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