Rugby more than a French fancy

The Herald - Herald Sport - - RUGBY UNION. EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS CUP - ALAS­DAIR REID IN MONT­PEL­LIER

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.

Pic­ture: SNS Group/sru

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.

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