By Gavin Mortimer
MONTPELLIER COACH Fabien Galthié has been talking up Treviso this week, warning his players the Italians will pose a real threat when the two sides meet on Saturday in the Heineken Cup. So they will. But if I was an Italian I’d be quaking in my boots at the prospect of trying to contain Jonathan Pélissié because so far this season the scrum-half has been nigh on unstoppable. He’s scored three tries so far this season and practically beat Clermont single-handed with a 31-point haul in Montpellier’s recent 43-3 rout of last season’s European finalists.
Two of those tries, by the way, will be there or thereabouts when they come to vote for the Top 14 Try of the Season in May. If you haven’t seen Pélissié’s effort against Toulouse (slaughtered 25-0 by Montpellier last month), watch it here and wonder at its brilliance. Treviso have probably watched it a hundred times or more. Good luck, lads.
Pélissié is quick to attribute his scintillating start to the season to his team-mates, a Montpellier side that lie second in the table, behind Toulon only on points difference. “I arrived at the club in the summer from Grenoble and straight away I appreciated the atmosphere,” explains the 25-year-old. “There were a lot of changes in the squad over the summer but we’ve quickly built a good spirit. You can see that at our home matches. What we must do now is improve our away form. If we do that we’ll be challenging for the title.”
Pélissié scored four tries for Grenoble last season in his 24 league outings, a modest return for a player of his ability. With a brain as quick as his feet, the 5ft 8in footballer is that rarity in the modern game – a player who looks for the space, not the opponent. Trouble was last season he alternated between nine and ten, whereas at Montpellier’s he plays scrum-half and Francois Trinh-Duc wears the No 10 shirt. The fact he’s also in a squad coached by one of the great France scrum-halves also helps. “Fabien has got such a lot of experience that he can pick up on little details and pass them on to me,” explains Pélissié. “Often they’re just little technical points but they all make a difference.”
Pélissié laughs when asked why it is France scrum-halves love to kick their goals. He does it, so too Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili, Frederic Michalak and even Toulouse’s Jean-Marc Doussain has the odd pot. “It’s a little bizarre,” he admits. “I haven’t got a definitive answer but I think it’s because so many scrum-halves in France start their career at ten. I did, before switching to scrum-half, but I still like to kick goals.”
That’s not the only thing that sets Pélissié apart among his peers in the Top 14. He was born in Yvelines, to the south-west of Paris, making him one of the few top-class talents in French rugby to hail from the northern half of the country. Mind you, Pélissié is quick to point out he grew up in the south, in the beautiful countryside of the Dordogne. “I consider myself southern,” he says. “I have family in Paris and I like to go there for its atmosphere and culture. But they are colder in the north. In the south we smile more. It must be the sun!”
Surprisingly, Pélissié was overlooked by Philippe Saint-André for last month’s France training camp, he’s cool about the omission. “I’ve had no contact (from Saint-André),” he says. “And I’m not thinking about it. I’m focusing only on Montpellier and I think I’ve still got a lot of work to do if I’m to be selected.”
That was the message from Galthie after Pélissié’s jaw-dropping performance against Clermont. “He’s clever, runs fast, tackles well – he is capable of doing great things,” said the Montpellier coach. “The hardest part is to come, but he has his head on his shoulders.”
A series of standout performances in this season’s Heineken Cup will do Pélissié’s international chances no harm, especially as Montpellier have to tackle Ulster and Leicester, “I’ve never played against either Ruan Pienaar or Ben Youngs,” says the Frenchman. “But it will be a good challenge if I do. I’ll go into the games without fear, just excitement at the prospect of playing against two of the best scrum-halves around.”
Pélissié also says Montpellier have the strength in depth this season to sustain their challenge for the Top 14 while also going at it hammer and tongs in the Heineken Cup, something that not all French sides have done over the years. “I believe it’s possible that we can challenge for both titles,” he says. “It will be hard, the Top 14 season is very long and the Heineken Cup is a very tough competition with a high standard. But if we stay focused, don’t get a bad run of injuries, we can give it a good shot.”