PREVIEW: SA-flavoured Montpellier set for outsiders Castres
TOP 14 FINAL: Long-serving Montpellier flank Fulgence Ouedraogo insists that his star-studded side, with a distinct Springbok flavour, will not underestimate Castres in Saturday’s Top 14 Final at the Stade de France.
Montpellier topped the standings at the end of the regulation season and progressed smoothly into the Final with a Ruan Pienaar-inspired demolition of underdogs Lyon.
Castres, however, scraped into the play-offs after finishing sixth, but have since shown their mettle, their dream run including a memorable semifinal victory over Racing 92 that deprived outgoing All Black legend Dan Carter of a final chance at French silverware before taking up a two-year contract in Japan.
Big-spending Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, rather spitefully and after having seen Lyon advance past his own club in the play-offs, compared Saturday’s Final at the Stade de France to this season’s French football Cup showdown.
The latter pitched the Qatar-backed might of Paris Saint-Germain against Les Herbiers, a team of unknowns from the lower reaches of France’s third division which lost 0-2.
“The final is like the French Cup final except there’s no PSG,” Boudjellal said in his video post for rugbyrama.fr.
Castres, in fact, were crowned Top 14 champions as recently as 2013 when they beat Toulon, who got their revenge a year later, but there is no doubt they have surpassed expectations this season on just the 11th biggest budget in the ultra-competitive Top 14 (21.7 million euros).
Ouedraogo, the sole survivor of Montpellier’s only previous run to the Top 14 Final in 2011, said his team were “trying to stay in our bubble”.
“It’s taken seven years to get back to the Final,” said the France flank.
“You never know when you’ll play another. That’s why we have to focus on this match and regret nothing.”
Montpellier might be favourites but have never won the French title, losing to Toulouse in 2011. Ouedraogo admitted that was a different era for the club, which took on a pronounced South African flavour after Jake White was named coach in 2014 although proven Kiwi Vern Cotter took over the reins of the Mohed Altrad-backed club this season.
“The season wasn’t the same. Neither were the experiences, the players, the opponents,” he said.
“In 2011, we had many players that came from Montpellier and the region. There’s a few less now even if some people forget that some players have come through [youth ranks] at the club.
“If you say Montpellier is a team of South Africans, it doesn’t matter, it passes me by.
“The South Africans are part of our club, our city and our team. There are other countries that also lend something to our team, Montpellier is a catch-all.”
Scrumhalf Pienaar, a World Cup winner in 2007 along with current teammates and fellow Springboks Francois Steyn and the front-row Du Plessis brothers, has been pulling the strings with All Black Aaron Cruden finally finding his feet at flyhalf.
But with victories over Toulouse in the play-off and Racing in the semifinal respectively, Ouedraogo said Castres were a team that deserved to be called something other than outsiders.
“They’ve played some great games to get to the Final,” he said. “We’re not preparing lightly for this game. This Castres side has shown it likes the knock-out format of matches.
Castres, backed by the Pierre-Fabre pharmaceutical group, are coached by the likeable Christophe Urios, who said his team were “laid back” looking ahead at the final.
“We’re not under pressure, but that’s not to say we don’t have ambition. We’re laid back but very ambitious,” Urios said.
“Montpellier dominated at the head of the Top 14. When you watch their performance against Lyon, it gives you the willies.
“They’re a very tough side, very well coached and which has a good spirit. But, now, I don’t think they’re unbeatable!
“On Saturday, there won’t be world champions on the paddock. There’ll be 15 Montpellier players against 15 from Castres, that’s it.”