Montpellier's multinational team may have lifted the European Champions Cup but they're struggling to win over the hearts of the French
It’s hard for the French to love Montpellier. Admire them, respect them, yes, but affection? Few in France are fond of the Languedoc club who on Friday crushed Harlequins to win the European Challenge Cup. Jake White won’t care. As he said last week: “I’m not paid so that some people can be happy, I’m paid to win.”
The South African coach has now banked one trophy and another could be his next month given Montpellier’s form in the Top 14. But in a country reared on the art of seduction, the French find Montpellier singularly charmless. “Cold and methodical,” was how Le Figaro newspaper described their Challenge Cup triumph, while another attributed a “cold pragmatism” to their methods.
In Monday’s Midi Olympique, they called Montpellier a machine and lamented the fact that Thibault Privat, Nicolas Mas, Robins Tchale-Watchou and Francois Trinh-Duc had been omitted from the match-day squad. White was unapologetic for overlooking the Frenchmen. “The choices are difficult,” he said in the week before the final. “If I take the case of Francois Trinh-Duc, the sentimental thing would be to pick him for the match, but that’s not possible… my job is to select the best.”
He’s right, of course. Rugby is a professional sport. Perhaps that’s why Montpellier won their European trophy and Racing 92 lost theirs. It’s hard to imagine White allowing an unfit fly-half to take the field – no matter who he was.
But the French cherish sentiment, and that’s why White’s Montpellier will never be clutched to the Gallic bosom in the way the all-conquering Toulouse side of a decade ago was. Even Toulon at their peak had a lovable rogue quality to them. Yes, it seemed at times that their president had more money than sense, but it was hard not to feel a certain warmth for a club that boasted such men as Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Freddie Michalak and Bakkies Botha.
Botha was one of four South Africans in the Toulon squad that beat Clermont in last season’s Champions Cup final; Montpellier fielded seven in the starting XV against Quins, prompting Midi Olympique to dub them the “Langueboks”.
Fulgence Ouedraogo was one of the three Frenchmen in the Montpellier team, the last survivor of the quartet of young stars who burst onto the scene more than a decade ago. Together with Louis Picamoles, Julien Thomas and Francois Trinh-Duc, Ouedraogo was one of Montpellier’s local lads who went on to play for France. Picamoles and Thomas are long gone, and Trinh-Duc will be joining Toulon next season.
The four came of age at just the right moment, becoming the beating lifeblood of a club determined to go places. They literally did in 2007, upgrading from the small and ramshackle Stade Sabathé to the swanky new Stade Yves-du-Manoir. They also went from being one of the Top 14 also-rans to a major player, reaching their first final in 2011.
They lost to Toulouse, a match that in hindsight was heavy with symbolism. The sun was beginning to set on Toulouse’s empire in 2011, while Montpellier were at the dawn of theirs. The month before the 2011 final Mohed Altrad, who made his millions through his eponymous construction company, became the principal stakeholder in the club. Five years on and the empire that Altrad has overseen is starting to take shape.
Altrad, who renamed the Stade Yves-du-Manoir after himself, recruited Jake White at the start of last year. The pair are cut from the same cloth. Realists not romantics. “I didn’t get into rugby to be famous,” Altrad said in an interview last week. “But to seek a visibility for the Altrad Group, the principal sponsor.”
He’s got the visibility, all right, but popularity remains some way off.
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