European Champions Cup restarts as Montpellier travel to Glasgow


Paris (AFP)

After France's disastrous showing in their November internationals, the European Champions Cup restarts -- with Montpellier's trip to Glasgow on Friday -- as detractors debate the cause of the national team's malaise.

By anyone's standards, Les Bleus' autumn campaign was a catastrophe. Hammered by New Zealand, they also lost to a very poor South Africa side and drew with 2019 World Cup hosts Japan.

It left veteran coach Guy Noves with the unenviable record of 13 defeats and a draw from his 21 matches in charge -- the side's worst win-ratio in almost 50 years.

Critics have been foaming at the mouth to list the reasons behind the demise.

Heading the complaints is the state of the Top 14, France's elite division often touted as one of the world's most competitive, but obviously failing the national set-up as it stands.

Inadequate academies failing to produce quality youngsters, too many games, too many foreigners -- particularly in key positions -- too many club interests taking precedent over national ones.

"I'm well aware of the period we're going through," Noves told AFP. "I know some of the reasons for it but I don't really want to list them because otherwise they'll say I'm complaining."

Either way, it makes for familiar reading for followers of the French club game, and especially Montpellier and club president Mohed Altrad, the Syrian Bedouin-born French billionaire businessman who has managed to rub everyone in French club rugby up the wrong way.

Now coached by former Clermont and Scotland trainer Vern Cotter, it was formerly Jake White at Montpellier's helm, and the South African did not hesitate in waving Altrad's chequebook to sign up a host of compatriots.

- South African bolthole -

The current Montpellier squad boasts a whopping 13 South Africans as well as three Georgians, two Fijians, two New Zealanders, an Australian and a Portuguese international.

The logic is not difficult to see for the club owner. The fewer number of players absent on international duty makes for a more solid showing in the Top 14. Montpellier currently sit second, two points behind leaders La Rochelle, to whom they lost 26-14 last weekend.

The pressure is on for Friday's match at Glasgow, both teams having lost their opening two Pool 3 games and knowing that a victory is crucial to their chances of qualifying for the quarter-finals.

Montpellier did at least pick up three bonus points, whereas Glasgow have nothing to show for their efforts following defeats to three-time winners Leinster and English champions Exeter, who clash on Sunday.

"Up against half the Scotland team, if not more, it'll be an even tougher match," said Montpellier No.8 Kelian Galletier of Friday's trip.

"If we lose, the European Cup is over for us."

Despite being pointless, Glasgow coach Dave Rennie insisted his team haven't written off the competition.

"We'll put the best team out that we possibly can. Obviously, Europe is a bit of a sprint, being over six weeks instead of the 21 in the Guinness Pro14," the Kiwi said.

"We know we're in a tough pool, with Exeter leading in England, Montpellier leading in France and Leinster doing well in their conference."

Beyond Top 14 and European action, Altrad has found himself mired in an ugly affair involving French rugby federation president Bernard Laporte.

Altrad signed an agreement with Laporte's company to exploit the image of the former France coach, at the same time as Altrad's eponymous company became a jersey sponsor of the France XV.

Laporte has also been accused of helping to have reduced a fine imposed on Montpellier last season for a protest banner flown by their supporters. His intervention, which he said involved a phone call to offer a "political perspective", prompted seven members of the federation's appeals board to resign.

Laporte's contract with Altrad has since been withdrawn, but the alleged favouritism case was this week passed to the public prosecutor.

In the meantime, all eyes focus on an upturn in French fortunes on the pitch, starting with Altrad's team laden with foreigners.