Getting rid of the World Cup-winning coach who led them to the European Challenge Cup in his first full season in charge could be the best thing that’s ever happened to Montpellier, writes James Harrington.
The big news out of the Top 14 last week was not that Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal was considering selling the club after a decade in charge.
Boudjellal wears his heart on his sleeve, and, for all that he’s portrayed as the moustache-twirling Victorian baddie of the Top 14, his is a big heart that beats in rouge-et-noir for his beloved club.
He may well sell-up – talks with a fellow local business consortium are said to be at an advanced stage – but, make no mistake, this is not the great parting of the ways some would like to believe it will be.
No, the big news came from further west along the Mediterranean coast, where it was revealed that World Cup-winning coach Jake White’s tenure at Montpellier is coming to an end as eyebrow-raising as its beginning.
White will depart at the end of the season, no matter what happens, to be replaced by former Clermont coach Vern Cotter.
He arrived in January 2015, as a consultant, after Fabien Galthié was ‘suspended’ following a string of eight defeats in nine games. Rumour has it that the former France scrum-half had decided to take a South American holiday rather than work to turn around the club’s fortunes.
White formally took over as head coach at the end of the 2014/15 season, with Galthié sent out on gardening leave. (He’s still there, such is the painfully slow nature of French employment bureaucracy. He pops up now and then as a TV pundit, but is unable to take a coaching job at another club).
It didn’t take long for White to make his presence felt. A bunch of French players were sent packing and replaced by a bunch of South Africans – JIFF rules be damned.
The playing-style changed, too. Under Galthié, Montpellier were passionate and volatile and brilliant and frustrating and … French. They played sexy rugby. When they were good (and they could be), they were very, very good. When they were bad (and they could be) they were diabolical. But they had style – and the Montpellierans, soccer fans to their very core, loved them for it.
Jake White doesn’t do sexy rugby. He does winning rugby. He replaced French umami with the South African beef he knows how to work with. It’s quality stuff, there’s no doubt, but has left a bad taste in French rugby fans’ mouths.
In the season-and-a-few-weeks he has been in charge, Montpellier have won the European Challenge Cup, and reached the end-of-season Top 14 play-offs to qualify for the Champions Cup this season.
But White’s winning rugby is a turn-off – proof that success does not always draw crowds. At the start of the 2014/15 season, Galthié’s last few weeks in charge, the average attendance at what was then called Stade Yves du Manoir but is now known as the Altrad Stadium, was well over 13,000. This season, the club is lucky to draw 10,000 fans to home games.
Club President Mohed Altrad could probably live with the local downturn in support for a while. Unlike Boudjellal, he has publicly admitted that he’s not in club ownership for the love of rugby.
He could probably cope with the fact that his head coach could not summon up the effort to learn more than a token amount of the language.
He may even have been able to handle the near-criminal handling of old faithful François Trinh-Duc’s departure. After more than a decade of service, the fly-half was dropped for the club’s final home game of last season and denied the chance to say one final goodbye to the fans.
You could argue, as White did, that there is no place for sentiment in modern rugby. But it was a cruel and bitter end to the player’s 13-year Montpellier career – and French rugby fans are a sentimental bunch. Just 10 minutes would have been enough, Jake. Would it have been so hard?
What Altrad could not live with was the revelation that White had none-too-quietly sounded out the English RFU about taking over the England hotseat. That was a personal betrayal.
The story is that White wanted to extend his stay, but Altrad decided enough was enough. He is rumoured to have offered former Toulon coach and FFR presidential hopeful Bernard Laporte an eye-watering amount of money to take over, but has in the end offered Cotter the job.
Cotter knows French rugby. He will bring the excitement back to Montpellier. It will have a steelier heart than it did under Galthié, of that there is no doubt, but it will be – when the rugby gods look down kindly on Montpellier – breathtaking stuff. It’s probably the best rugby decision Altrad has ever made.
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