Rugby more than a French fancy
After the 51-28 mauling his side suffered at the hands of toulon last season, Gregor townsend could be forgiven for feeling just a little anxious about a return trip to the south of france, but the Glasgow Warriors coach was in nostalgic mode as he contemplated the prospect of leading his players to Montpellier on european Champions Cup duty this afternoon.
the vibrant and sophisticated Languedoc city was the last stop on townsend’s three-club sojourn in french rugby, following periods on the books of Brive and Castres. It was also, in truth, towards the evening of his career, a last blast in the rugby sunshine after the then Scotland coach, Matt Williams, had told townsend that his international career was over. In which light it is probably understandable that most of his recollections of the place have little to do with rugby.
“It was a bit different playing in Montpellier compared to the other french clubs I played for,” said townsend. “Our youngest boy, Luke, was born there, and Christian, our older boy, was only one or two two years old, so my memories of Montpellier are more family memories.
“But it was a club that was clearly going places. Back then, they were still at their old ground in town, which was a smaller ground than the one they’re in now, but they had a great support. While I was there, it was already known that they would be moving the following season to their big, new stadium. that’s a fantastic venue and I’m really looking forward to going there.”
townsend is as fascinated by rugby history as by current trends and tactics in the game, and he has some intriguing insights into how the sport has developed over the past two decades from being a fiercely territorial and proudly parochial activity into one that has become – of necessity, most likely – more urban and commercial.
“the rise of Montpellier has been part of the changing landscape of french rugby,” he expained. “Over the past 20 years or so, the game has become more city-based. You now have Lyon and Bordeaux in the top 14, for instance. You’ve also got two teams in Paris who are back in the top 14.
“there is still a tradition of clubs with smaller catchments, like Brive and Castres, but they have to work hard just to stay up there financially with the big city teams. french rugby is now bigger than french football and the money, the TV deals, the number of foreign players have made a big difference. It’s great to see.”
that enthusiasm is likely to be tested today in the claustrophobic surroundings of the Altrad Stadium – formerly the Stade Yves-du-Manoir, now modestly renamed in honour of Mohed Altrad, the club president. Montpellier suffered a 30-23 defeat away to toulouse last weekend, but one Gallic rugby tradition which has stood the test of time is that french sides still tend to be far more formidable at home than on the road.
Indeed, the Champions Cup’s opening round showed that home advantage is not something that is only to be enjoyed in france. Of the 10 games played, only one was won by the away side – and that by a
The rise of Montpellier has been part of the changing landscape of French rugby . . . it is now bigger than French football. It is great to see
narrow margin when Munster’s Ian Keatley dropped a goal to nudge his side past Sale. In the new european competition, points taken on foreign soil will have even greater value than in its Heineken Cup predecessor.
“I think that statistic shows the quality of the competition now,” said townsend. “You have the 20 best teams in europe in there, so it is bound to be tight. But although most of the away teams lost, some of the games were really close. to beat the leading teams in europe away from home is tough. You’ve got to be even more accurate away from home and have got to realise that there will be times in the game when the crowd will give the home team energy.”
In other words, travelling Glasgow fans would have to have swallowed a lot of the Languedoc’s celebrated gargle juice to believe that they will see a repeat of what their side produced as they blasted past Bath with a 37-10 victory at Scotstoun last weekend. that result reverberated around europe, but townsend is well aware that Montpellier can turn on the style on their patch as well.
The french side has been caricatured as one obsessed with moving the ball from touchline to touchline at every opportunity. that view is too simplistic, says townsend. rather like Glasgow, Montpellier, coached by that wisest of frenchmen, fabien Galthie, can mix things up as well.
“they play to their strengths,” said townsend. “the first strength is in the set piece because they have a big pack, have a good scrum and a good driving lineout. On the other hand, if they do get any loose ball, counterattack ball, they have fantastic backline players.”
With the luxury of having almost all his players fit and available, townsend has brought Alex Dunbar and Josh Strauss back into the side, at the expense of Peter Horne and Adam Ashe. finn russell is promoted to start at fly-half, with Duncan Weir moved to the bench.
Aside from Strauss, the only change in the pack sees tim Swinson brought into the second row in place of Leone Nakarawa, a choice that suggests a rather tighter gameplan than the one the fijian likes to follow.
BACK ON FAMILIAR GROUND: Gregor Townsend spent time at Montpellier during the twilight of his playing career and retains fond memories of living in France with his young family.