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The 'very strategic' variation Harlequins are getting heads around

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Tabai Matson has painted this Sunday’s clash between his English title-winning Harlequins and the French title-chasing Montpellier as a conflict of philosophies he can’t wait to encounter. Fresh from swatting aside London Irish in the Premiership, Quins are braced for a very different type of challenge in their two-legged round of 16 Heineken Champions Cup encounter against the Top 14 pace-setters. 

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It’s an obstacle that Matson is intrigued by and his squad have gone to great lengths on the training ground in Guildford to try and replicate the challenge that awaits at the GGL Stadium before the return game six days later at the Stoop. Montpellier dragged the European tournament into the mud with the brutal way they surrendered 89-7 away to Leinster in Dublin twelve weeks ago.

However, they picked off Exeter the following week at home to book their Champions Cup progress and have since gone on to win six and draw one of their nine recent French league matches to lead that competition by five points with four games remaining before the playoffs. It’s a flourish that naturally didn’t escape the attention of Matson, whose style of game with Harlequins is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to how Montpellier go about their business of winning matches.

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Will Skelton on the Ronan O’Gara slap and Australia vs England | Le French Rugby Podcast | Episode 24
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Will Skelton on the Ronan O’Gara slap and Australia vs England | Le French Rugby Podcast | Episode 24

“One of the fantastic things about them is you kind of watch them out of the corner of your eye because you are not quite sure and when you go back and review their last few games, one of the things I love about watching the French game is there is just so much variation,” enthused Matson when quizzed by RugbyPass at his round of 16 media briefing.

“People try different things. There tends to be a real variation in the way the game is played. The Premiership is really pragmatic. We get teams that kick a lot as well. Saracens kick a stack load compared to the likes of us and Exeter, so when you see Montpellier and see they have 50 more kicks than any other team in the Top 14, it’s not an anomaly. It’s something very strategic that you have got to get your head around.”

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Matson has made just a single change to his starting XV from the comfortable win over Irish, recalling Louis Lynagh to start on the wing in place of Luke Northmore. “Louis has got a really important day because if we can diffuse one of their biggest strengths we will be able to put them under pressure,” he continued. “Their defence is strong and it is on the back of their kicking game. Strategically we have got to get that diffusing of their bomb sorted. They have got one of the best half-backs maybe in the world kicking the ball so we have to get that part right otherwise we will have a very long day at the office.”

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So then, what have Harlequins been up to on the training ground under Matson to prepare for the aerial assault that is coming their way? “It’s the non-23, they have an important job for us on weeks like this making sure they are as close to Montpellier as we can get them and making sure we want to play to the true Quins style.

“We want to make sure we move the ball, put them under pressure with ball in hand and we do what we normally do which is keep the ball alive, make linebreaks, score tries. We won’t beat Montpellier at Montpellier’s game as we have never beaten Leicester at Leicester’s game and we have never beaten Saracens at Saracens’ game. That is the beauty, that is the exciting challenge, a conflict of philosophies of the game with these guys, so it is going to be awesome fun.” 

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