Team in focus: Montpellier

This weekend sees the final game of the Northern hemisphere season, and we aren’t talking about the latest episode in the tiresome story of a washed-up Welsh 12. At 19:45 Irish time in the Stade de France, one of the more remarkable fixtures of the season will kick off – the heavyweights of Toulouse, looking for their 18th Bouclier, against Montpellier, appearing in their first ever final.

The story of Montpellier is a fascinating one. At the beginning of the season, many pundits had them tipped for relegation. The team were coming off a disappointing 10th place finish in 2009-10, prompting the replacement of the coaching staff and the retirement of key pivot Federico Todeschini.

Brought in to turn the team around were Eric Bechu, who coached unfashionable Colomiers to the final in 2000, and his former on-field general, and French scrum-half, Fabien Galthié. The coaching staff were not daunted, with Galthié proclaiming  “The first conclusion I can draw is that the team is young enough that it has the potential to develop”.

The coaching staff kept the nucleus of last years squad, with a couple of additions. Bechu went to Argentina for a bit of shopping, bringing back inside back Santiago Fernandez and outside back Martin Bustos Moyano, both of whom have been key players this season. Weighing in with 265 points, Bustos Moyano’s dead-eyed goal kicking has been a crucial factor in Montpellier lasting the pace. Providing the cutting edge out wide has been former Ulster folk hero Timmy Naguca, who has contributed 10 tries, a statistic which will shock all but the most blinkered of Ravenhill regulars.

With the local youngsters and unheralded imports superbly marshalled by Francois Trinh-Duc, the mix has worked very well. Not only was the goal of Heineken Cup qualification achieved, with a stylish last weekend  27-3 victory over boot merchants Toulon, but gutsy wins over Castres and, in one of the most exciting games WoC has seen, Racing Metro, have propelled them into the final.

Regretably for all who love rugby, team captain and hard ground lover Fulgence Ouedraogo has been ruled out with a fractured hand, leaving Montpellier shorn of their most important player and leader. This may make Saturday a step too far, especially with Montpellier-born and raised contact magnet Louis Picamoles in the opposing back row. Whiff of Cordite would love to see Montpellier go all the way, but suspects the aristocrats of Stade Toulousain might spoil the story. Still, its been a great ride, and the Racing game will live long in the memory.

Vive les Heraultains!

John Hayes, Your Country Needs You!

As the season rumbled to a close, Whiff of Cordite managed the miracle of being in two places at one time (well, there are two of us I suppose) to get a view of all the action. Some things we noticed:

Munster deserved the Cup. They have struggled on the big occasion this season, but their consistency in the league is admirable. They played the final with an intensity Leinster couldn’t dredge up after their heroics last week. McGahan deserves some credit for switching his selecion policy mid-season to putting faith in youth, and a number of gems have been unearthed. Top of the class is Conor Murray, who, it could be argued, should not only travel to New Zealand, but be Ireland’s starting 9.

John Hayes is going to the World Cup. Munster’s scrum has improved beyond all recognition in the last couple of months, and the big Bruff man has surely seen off the non-challenge of Tony Buckley for a spot on the RWC plane. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the somewhat rejuventaed Marcus Horan could join him – swallow dive and off-the-ball hit notwithstanding.

The Flying Fattie still has it. Rupeni Caucaunibuca is one player we really hope to see in the World Cup. Spare tyre or otherwise, the sight of this huge man running the length of the pitch in the final moments of Toulouse’s semi-final win was surely the moment of the weekend. A shout-out to rugby genius Maxime Medard is also in order.

Thank heavens for Schalk Brits. Amid the Premiership drudge-fests at least there’s Schalk to keep up the fun-quotient. Saracens’ ridiculously dynamic hooker put in a man-of-the-match performance to swing an otherwise drab final for his side. He lit the place up, and his try-saving tackle on Alesana Tuilagi was the stuff of greatenss. South Africa are missing a trick if both he and Richardt Strauss are sitting at home this September, as is likely.

As for Montpellier‘s fairytale adventure, we’ll be having a closer look at just how the second-favourites for relegation at the start of the season have found themselves in the Top 14 Final a little later in the week.