'South Africans ate at one table, the Fijians at another...'
Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad has sung the praises of Philippe Saint-Andre, who has transformed the Top 14 club and qualified them for this Friday’s final at Stade de France versus Castres Olympique. It was June 2020 when the former France coach initially joined and he took charge of the team seven months later after it was decided to sack Xavier Garbajosa for fear they would be sucked into a relegation battle.
Saint-Andre soon put a stop to the rot, Montpellier finishing out the 2020/21 season with their status secured in the Top 14 while they also defeated Leicester in the final of the European Challenge Cup at Twickenham. A year later, they now stand just 80 minutes away from winning a first-ever Top 14 title.
Montpellier have contested the final twice before, losing the 2018 decider to Castres and in 2011 to Toulouse. However, they now have every chance of ending that domestic trophy famine after defeating Bordeaux in the semi-finals last weekend in Nice.
In the lead-up to their latest final, Altrad has spoken at length with Midi Olympique and what he had to say about the dynamic of the Montpellier team dining room before Saint-Andre rung the changes highlighted the overhaul that has taken place with him at the helm.
It was by chance that Saint-Andre was originally taken on, Altrad confiding in him when the team were on a losing streak under Garbajosa. “You have three solutions, Mohed: you can keep Xavier Garbajosa; you can recruit a new coach; or else I can help you out for a while. I chose the third. What was initially a trouble-shooting turned into a permanent solution,” explained Altrad regarding what Saint-Andre initially said to him.
“You know, Philippe suffered a lot when he was coach of the France team. After the defeat against the All Blacks in the quarter-finals of the World Cup (62-13), people fell on him, sometimes very violently. After that, he needed time to rebuild himself, to love rugby as he did when he started. Today, Philippe has rediscovered this pleasure. He is happy again. I see it in his eyes.”
Montpellier, too, are in a much happier place. “Clearly, yes,” continued Altrad. “Before the arrival of Philippe Saint-André, the South Africans ate at one table, the Fijians at another and the French elsewhere. It was quite symbolic of the functioning of the club. All that has disappeared. This new solidarity is expressed on the ground. We saw it against Bordeaux: our defence was magnificent that evening. We smothered them.”
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