Montpellier Hérault Rugby is a relatively new club having been formed in 1986, the result of a merger between Stade Montpelliérain and Montpellier Université Club. By 1991, the new outfit had reached the top division of French rugby and in ’93 won their first silverware in the Challenge de l’Espérance. A financial crisis in 1998 saw Montpellier drop to the second division, where they remained until 2003, when Didier Nourault coached the side to a Pro D2 title.
Montpellier have been slowly building ever since. 2007 was a significant year for the club, with Fulgence Ouedraogo becoming their first French international and also a move to the new Stade Yves-du-Manoir. 2011 saw Montpellier reach their first-ever Top 14 final, where they were beaten 15-10 by Toulouse. Another landmark in that season was the arrival of Mohed Altrad as president, a building materials tycoon whose personal fortune totals €600 million.
Last season, Montpellier reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in their history. It is a relatively short history, but one which shows consistent progress. The likelihood is that there is more to come.
Montpellier is located on the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, the capital city of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The population of almost 260,000 is rapidly growing and Montpellier is also home to the 2011/12 Ligue 1 football champions. Les Héraultais play at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir, named after the same man Racing Metro honoured. Montpellier’s stade, which was the first stadium built after rugby turned professional, holds a maximum of 14,700 supporters.
MHR finished fifth in the regular season, level on points with Racing Metro but with a better head-to-head record. That gave Fabien Galthié’s side an away barrages match against Castres, where poor discipline from Mamuka Gorgodze in particular cost them in a 25-12 loss. Indeed, yellow cards were a problem all season for Montpellier, with a total of 24. Their attacking and defensive records were in line with a fifth-place spot on the log, and Montpellier were just one point away from Castres in fourth.
Ensuring that Montpellier don’t miss out on the top four and a home game to start the play-offs is mission number one for Galthié this season. With Altrad augmenting the club’s wage budget by €2 million this year, the list of new playing personnel is impressive. If les Héraultais do earn a home fixture for the first knock-out round, then a first Top 14 trophy is a real possibility. In the Heineken Cup, a pool featuring Ulster and Leicester is not the kindest draw but Montpellier will be focused on repeating last season’s quarter-final.
Galthié’s playing career saw him win three Grand Slams, reach a World Cup final in 1999, claim IRB Player of the Year in 2002, earn a Top 14 title in 2003, collect two Oscar du Midi Olympique awards, and captain his country 24 times in 64 games. An intelligent, classy, observant player, Galthié is possibly the best scrumhalf France has produced. Fortunately for rugby in l’Hexagone, it appears that the 44-year-old has transferred his best traits as a player into his coaching career.
In his first season as a coach in 2004/05, Galthié guided Stade Français to the finals of the Heineken Cup and Top 16. An impressive start, and Galthié’s first silverware came in ’06/07 with Top 14 success, before he quit at the end of the following season to enjoy time away from the game. Taking over at Montpellier in 2010, he helped the club to the Top 14 final in his first season. MHR have lost in the barrages phase in the two campaigns since.
While Galthié backs his players to express themselves on the pitch, the former scrumhalf also appreciates the importance of a powerful set-piece. ‘Super’ Mario Ledesma is the man Galthié entrusts his forwards with. Regardless of the new players, Montpellier’s greatest asset is head coach Galthié.
Rene Ranger could prove to be the best signing in the Top 14 this season, despite the fact that the ITM Cup keeps him in New Zealand until late October. The 26-year-old’s highlight reels say everything that needs to be said about his explosiveness, but his defensive work-rate and breakdown expertise are equally important. Montpellier are getting a world-class player coming into his prime, and Galthié should back Ranger in the 13 shirt. If he does, les Héraultais will have the best outside centre in the league.
Of equal importance is the arrival of tighthead prop Nicolas Mas (33), in a league where “no scrum, no win” is the creed. Also an excellent cook, the former USAP stalwart adds technical expertise to Montpellier’s scrum. MHR have moved to cover the potentially unsettling loss of Argentine hooker Agustin Creevy to Worcester by bringing in Mickaël Ivaldi (23) from Toulon and Thomas Bianchin (25) from Racing Metro.
In the locking department there are three new options in 10-cap Wallaby Sitaleki Timani, Scottish lineout disruptor Jim Hamilton and Cameroonian giant Robins Tchale-Watchou. At 120kg, 123kg and 134kg respectively, that’s a whole lot of prime beef. There are also two new centres at Montpellier, making the choice of Ranger on the wing tempting. Springbok Wynand Olivier (30) is a solid option at 12, while Robert Ebersohn (24) showed intelligence and creativity for the Cheetahs this year.
Galthie has also added extra French influence to his squad. Anthony Floch (30) saw opportunities dry up at Clermont in recent times, but the international fullback remains an excellent counter-attacker. Winger Lucas Dupont (23) is a player of real potential, joining from Grenoble. Also moving to Montpellier from FCG is Jonathan Pélissié (25), a lively, spiky, goal-kicking halfback who is one to watch out for.
New Zealand-capped wing/centre Anthony Tuitavake (31) joins after three years in Japan, while 22-year-old South African centre ‘JP’ du Plessis is also on board.
Despite Philippe Saint-André’s disinterest, François Trinh-Duc is a superb outhalf. The 26-year-old is the heartbeat of les Héraultais, with his intelligence and vision prompting the team around the pitch. PSA’s decision to omit Trinh-Duc from June’s tour of New Zealand meant the outhalf benefited from his first full pre-season in several years. With that fitness base, expect a strong start from the Montpellier-born star.
Providing service to Trinh-Duc last season was Benoît Paillaugue (26). The place-kicking scrumhalf enjoyed the stand-out year of his career so far and will be confident of holding off the challenge of newcomer Pélissié
Montpellier’s back-row is an area of strength. Mamuka Gorgodze is a player of animal aggression, which does slip into ill-discipline. When he’s focused on playing rugby, ‘Gorgodzilla’ is a bullocking presence. Captain Fulgence Ouedraogo has an unmatchable work rate. Having joined the club at the age of 12 alongside Trinh-Duc, Ouedraogo’s passion is an inspiration. New Zealander Alex Tulou is a powerful ball-carrying No. 8 who had a majestic campaign in ’12/13. Johnnie Beattie of Scotland and the experienced Alexandre Bias add competition and depth.
Ulster fans will remember the name Timoci Nagusa well, owing to the two seasons the Fijian winger spent at the province from 2008 to 2010. Since joining MHR the 26-year-old has scored 34 tries in 69 starts. Having a Fijian on the wing is something of a fashion in French rugby now, but Nagusa is certainly among the most valuable finishers in the league. His tries are likely to be vital as Galthié’s Montpellier look to create history.
Possible Starting XV
15. Floch, 14. Nagusa, 13. Ranger, 12. Ebersohn, 11. Dupont, 10. Trinh-Duc, 9. Paillaugue, 8. Tulou, 7. Gorgodze/Bias, 6. Ouedraogo, 5. Hamilton/Tchale-Watchou, 4. Timani, 3. Mas, 2. Bianchin/Ivaldi, 1. Nariashvili (Note: Gorgodze and Bianchin are expected to miss the first seven or eight games of the season through injury.)
Photos: Marc Meynadier, MEDEF, Jason Milich, Martin Dobey,