The Shield of Brennus and a night of goodbyes

Two teams meet in the final of the Top 14 on Friday, two teams matched on the pitch but which could not be from more different backgrounds.

For Montpellier, the hour is approaching. After years of scrapping in the lower reaches of the French top league and constantly flirting with relegation, a battered new stadium and owned by business mogul and writer Mohed Altrad saw the club’s fortunes turn around in 2011.

Potted stories

Unlikely final appearance in 2011 – on the path to which they defeated Friday’s opponents Castres in the finals – it was a sign that things were turning. There were two treasured Challenge Cup victories in 2016 and 2021 against Harlequins and Leicester respectively, while there were also Top 14 final appearance, and defeat, in 2018 (more on that after a while), but there was also turbulence.

A time of development under Fabien Galthie should have been continued under Jake White, but the South African coach failed to both fit into the local culture and develop local players, causing a fairly open rebellion. It also led to the end of the road for long-serving locally-grown players such as fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and alienated some of the local fans.

Vern Cotter stabilized the ship for a while, including the final appearance in 2018 and the development of a number of local players, but felt the team needed a new – and French – boost in 2020. With media reports swirling, Cotter suddenly. left his post to allow Philippe Saint-Andre a running start.

The first frank an international winger and coach has not had much luck since he clashed with his national team players at the 2015 World Cup, but he was a catalyst on the south coast. Not only the results were obtained, but also the “Frenchness” of the team was restored, much to the delight of the locals.

His willingness to give players a free run and speculate about ball players such as Zach Mercer has seen the team evolve into a significant European-level team that more than played its role in a breathless Champions Cup win against Harlequins this year, anyway. point in 119.

Their European adventure ended against eventual champions La Rochelle, but it was significant that Saint-Andre was not afraid to turn his squad around ever – including in those games against Quins – which left them fresher than many counterparts, both during and towards the end. of a murderously long season, not to mention helping a few marginal players evolve at a huge lick.

It is not a French club of long tradition that was founded only by a merger in 1986, but it has been a breeding ground for many of France’s more recent international stars, and the final will be a special end of career for one of them. : flanker and club talisman Fulgence Ouedraogo, whose 17 years at the club could end with the biggest of bangs on Friday. Others also bid farewell to the Heraults: long-serving melee half Benoit Paillauge, hero of the 2020 World Cup final, and popular cupbearer Guilhem Guirado are ready to leave and retire respectively. Guirado was in tears after the semi-final win over Bordeaux, and was vocal about how much this win would mean to him.

But Montpellier are not the only club with a talisman to which to wave goodbye, nor are they the only ones with a unique inclination to their story. Castrates are too established now to be considered clean mines, but a community of only 41,795 souls should, in a normal world, not eat at the same table as a city of nearly 800,000. Indeed, the student body of Montpellier alone is almost double the total population of Castres.

Rugby runs deep in the Castres psyche and culture. The team has been champions of France five times, twice shortly after World War II, then in 1993 in a final linked with controversy against Grenoble, and then twice in recent times, in 2013 against Toulon (who took revenge a year later) and in 2018 ( more on that in a moment).

2013 was a deeply emotional summer for the club. After an anti-probable victory against the Toulon Galacticos, team owner Pierre Fabre, who was also the town’s major benefactor with a giant pharmaceutical company headquartered there and owned the club for 30 years, passed away a month later. The stadium was renamed immediately after him, and the company and club are likely to remain intertwined for eternity.

Castres could never roll with the giants on all fronts. The club regularly qualifies for the Champions Cup and likewise regularly crashes early. Big names are missing, in general the teams of the past few years have been merged with miscreants and almost men from other teams and countries.

One such was South African hand-to-hand half Rory Kockott, who left South Africa both cursing the intransigence of the national team coaching staff, who refused to judge him despite his obvious talent, but also, if we are honest, some humor problem. .

Kockott framed himself in French town life so well that he actually became French, and ended up playing 11 times in blue. But it is his eleven years in Castres, with 220 appearances and 1,297 points, and a 2012-13 season in which he played almost every match and won a murder attempt against Toulon in the final, which will be celebrated on Friday, even if current. coach Pierre-Henry Broncan ruled out almost any opportunity of his choice.

Kockott has two winning medals though, and here we are, at the gate of the 2018 final. Montpellier were hot favorites, with good players from all over New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in their starting line-up. Aaron Cruden was at fly-half, against him was a lesser-known international fly-half of Argentina named Benjamin Urdapilleta. At hand-to-hand half there was Ruan Pienaar, who kept his opposing number Kockott from teams in South Africa. The two Plessis brothers were in the massive front row of Montpellier, Castres had two locals and a little-known Namibian.

But Castres ’collective dominated Montpellier from start to finish, with Urdapilleta kicking penalties for fun and the Castres team barely missed a tackle in a 29-13 victory. The beginning of the revival under Vern Cotter at Montpellier was misunderstood into the Stade de France territory.

It is always the collective that drives Castres in fact. The team disfigured points throughout the season of winning games, of taking every offer and of avoiding the champagne that is required of its more glorious neighbors in Toulouse – which Castres won in the semi-finals. Those from the city not on the 22 busloads of fans traveling to the capital, nor on the TGV train from Toulouse, nor risking and traveling in their own vehicles, will be rammed into the Stade Pierre-Fabre and watch the game. on the big screen. The town is, for all essential purposes, closed on Friday nights, unless you go for a beer in one of the rugby bars (there are many).

Montpellier’s collective identity may not be as strong, but it would be dangerous to underestimate how well Saint-Andre did to unite the different parts of the team. Friday’s match will not be one tight team and one team of tightly Confederate egos, Montpellier is a tight and cohesive unit and will have no weakness of spirit for Castres to try.

On paper there is not much match. Montpellier has three of France’s brightest things in the back, and one of Italy in fly-half Paolo Garbisi. It is also an international front row of extensive experience, while the talents of Mercer and Camara in the back row also need little introduction. On the bench is Handre Pollard’s siege-gun boot and experience, as well as the emerging talent of melee half Gela Aprasidze.

Castres has his South American pivot, not only the kick point machine that is Urdapilleta but also Uruguayan handball half Santiago Arata. Other recognizable names? Veteran center Thomas Combezou will be known by many, as will his partner Vilimoni Botitu. Defender Julien Dumora has made a name for himself this season. The experienced bosses of Loic Jacquet and Levan Chilachava are on the bench.

But names do not suit Castres, except the name of the town itself. There is enough weight behind it to carry the insufficient club to the final again. If Montpellier show a bit of trophy, it will be enough for them to win it.

READ MORE: Top 14: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde up in front of the beaks

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