With their Champions Cup hopes long gone, Montpellier’s energies are focused on the Top 14. However, they will still put pride on the line against European rivals Connacht this Sunday.
“We underperformed again against Gloucester last weekend,” said assistant coach Nathan Hines, reflecting on last weekend’s 29-6 defeat at Kingsholm. “Our attack wasn’t working. Our defence didn’t work for the first 20 minutes – we’re struggling a bit with injury and sickness. We were up against it from the start. Indiscipline cost us. We didn’t play in the right areas of the field and we got punished.”
These are issues the staff at Montpellier want to get right before Connacht visit the GGL for a match that in qualification terms is a dead rubber but which Hines still regards as hugely important. “We’re at home. We want to carry a bit of momentum into the (Top 14) game against La Rochelle next week, which is important for us.
“Just because we cannot make it through in Europe doesn’t mean we’re any less motivated to win – it’s just there’s no carrot of qualification. We don’t want to get beaten at home.”
No one at the club is underestimating the challenge Connacht will set. They sit three points ahead of Montpellier in Pool Five and beat the French side 23-20 at the Sportsground in November. “They punch above their weight. They always do. They’re a very well organised team. They don’t have as many internationals as other teams, but they’re well-coached and well-drilled.
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“They sometimes lack a little power, but they’re traditionally tough to play against. What they have going for them that most teams don’t is that they play for each other. You can really see that they’re used to dogging it out together – they have a good team spirit. You can’t buy that.
“A lot of teams don’t have that, but Connacht do and they can fall back on that when they have to – that’s what makes them so hard to play against.”
The French club’s season so far has been a muddle. After a slow start, they have edged their way into the sixth place in the Top 14 in a pack of teams including Toulon, La Rochelle, Racing 92, Toulouse and Clermont. But they have only won once in Europe and come into the final round of group matches rooted to the foot of Pool Five.
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Montpellier lost key players to the World Cup at the start of their campaign, including Louis Picamoles, Yacouba Camara and Frans Steyn, while new arrivals Handre Pollard and Guilhem Guirado, who picked up a serious injury in his sole outing for the club to date, were late to arrive which hit their plans.
Hines, though, also hinted at a deeper historical issue at the club. “This year’s a bit particular because you’ve had a World Cup. Players come back and they need time off – and then you’re straight into Europe and need results quite quickly.
“It’s a funny year. A lot of guys have been getting a lot of minutes that they normally wouldn’t get, which makes them more fatigued than normal, and obviously internationals haven’t had a lot of prep time having been at the World Cup.”
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He refused to use the World Cup as an excuse: “You suck that up. All clubs are in the same boat, more or less, but you just give young guys the opportunity.”
For all Mohed Altrad-bankrolled money, giving youngsters a chance is a problem. “That’s where we’re lacking depth. Our centre de formation (academy) was depleted somewhat a couple of years ago under Jake White. Usually you can call on those guys to help you. We didn’t have that luxury.”
Now, with just matches against Connacht and La Rochelle before the international break, Hines has looked back at the first half of the season for Montpellier. “We could have done with winning the three games we’ve drawn,” he said. “Against Bordeaux at home, we could have played better… and the referee missed a key forward pass, which would have been nice for him to spot.
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“We were stupid away at Toulon – we had a penalty and then got into a scuffle, so the referee reversed it. That would have given us three pots for the win. We’ve got a difficult game against La Rochelle coming. They’re starting to find their way just a little bit. It’s going to be difficult.
“They’ve got a strong scrum whereas, at Montpellier, we’ve got the most penalised scrum in the competition. It’s going to be difficult but the ideal will be to go there and get some points.”
He admitted to wishing he could lighten the load on his players. “There is a lot of rugby in the Top 14 and the Premiership. It needs cutting. Maybe cut two teams out of the Top 14, to make it more competitive. There’d be fewer games for players – this season we started in August and we’ll finish in July. As a coach that’s demanding. As a player it’s even more demanding.
“The provinces in Ireland come under fire in England and France for rotating and protecting their players. If you can do that, do it. In Premiership and Top 14, they can’t. Players are playing a lot of games – and they don’t get as much protection from the unions as players in Ireland.”
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