Shaun Goosen previews Sunday’s make or break Top 14 clash between La Rochelle and Montpellier.
A mouth-watering French affair is in store this Sunday, as the two table-toppers go head-to-head at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre. La Rochelle, enjoying easily the most successful season in their history, come off the back of a shock 29-25 away defeat to the mid-table Lyon, ending their spectacular winning run in the process. This result was compounded by their dismal showing in the European Challenge Cup, where they were pipped 14-16 by Gloucester at home, thus leaving them with just the Top 14 title to fight for. In contrast, Montpellier, nine points behind this weekend’s rivals with two round-robin games to play, cruised to a 54-3 victory over Racing 92, which has put them in pole position to finish the season in second ahead of the chasing Clermont Auvergne.
La Rochelle v Montpellier | Sunday 30 April | Stade Marcel-Deflandre | 12:30
To Win (80 Mins)
La Rochelle 3/10 | Draw 18/1 | Montpellier 28/10
This squad of “no-name brands” under the tutelage of dual coaches, Patrice Collazo and Xavier Garbajosa, have exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations this campaign. The have played a unique brand of winning rugby, and their 80 log points that have come from their 24 games so far have included a commendable 16 victories and 2 draws
With a solid group of seasoned veterans, including the likes of Victor Vito, Jason Eaton and Ricky Januarie leading the charge, ‘Les Corsaires’ have seemed destined to lift a first ever “Bouclier de Brennus” ever since their stunning 30-all draw with historic powerhouses Clermont in Round One.
With just a sole round-robin fixture left after this week (a daunting away-trip to the Stade Marcel-Michelin), La Rochelle cannot afford to lose any more momentum going into the play-offs.
Montpellier are a notoriously well-coached side, with a group of some seriously bruising forwards (as well as a few backs), and they will be aiming to further dent the hosts’ confidence in the lead-up to the play-offs. Fronting up in the physical exchanges, as well as nullifying the powers of a certain Francois Steyn, will be number one on the agenda for the men in black and yellow this Sunday.
Jake White’s side’s 51-point thrashing of the defending Top 14 champions last week, was perhaps one of their best performances to date. The forwards, led by the imperious Bismarck du Plessis, absolutely humiliated Racing up-front, and three push-over tries, as well as one coming off the back of a mammoth scrum, highlighted a physical display that completely blew the Parisians off the park.
The performance in particular of fly-half, Willie du Plessis was outstanding, with his intercept try (along with some pin-point accuracy off the kicking-tee) making for a very impressive outing. Frans Steyn continues to prove that he is still one of the greatest centres in the game, despite being in the international wilderness, and he will be positively chomping-at-the-bit to be let off the leash against the league’s front-runners.
A similarly physical performance could be too much for La Rochelle, although Montpellier will be hard-pressed to repeat one of the same quality as in their previous encounter. No doubt Jake White and his coaching staff will be readying their boys with a few sneaky tactics, but there is very little to suggest that Montpellier will stray away from the South African-esque game-plan that has brought them so much success over the course of the season.
I’m backing Montpellier to condemn La Rochelle to a third-straight loss. They have far more experience in their ranks than their counterparts, as well as momentum, and neither should be underestimated on match-day. Their pragmatic approach to their fixtures will also work in their favour, and will assist them in grinding out maximum points this Sunday.