Ulster face a real test of their credentials in Montpellier
Return of Pienaar is timely for visitors as they go up against France’s in-form team
Ruan Pienaar’s entry for the last half hour of the win against Leicester was almost seismic. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
This could be the game of the weekend. Montpellier, along with Toulouse and Clermont when in the mood, are amongst the most entertaining French sides to watch. Under Fabien Galthié, Montpellier are truer to the concept of Gallic flair than most, and in the second half at Ravenhill last Friday night there were glimpses of the ambitious, offloading game with which Ulster cut a swathe through the first half of last season.
Once they began to cope with Leicester’s dominant scrum and hard-carrying game, Ulster imposed themselves but ended up coughing up a bonus point instead of pushing on for one.
Ruan Pienaar’s return for the last half-hour was almost seismic and his return to the starting line-up is timely. Less so the loss of primary ball carrier Nick Williams due to a calf injury. Roger Wilson moves from blindside flanker to number eight, with Robbie Diack promoted from the bench, from where John Afoa is in line to make his first appearance of the season after injury.
With the forecast reasonably good, one caveat is the referee Leighton Hodges, for whom this could be even more of an intimidating occasion than it will be for Ulster.
Since Galthie joined in 2010, Montpellier have become a force in French club rugby, reaching the Top 14 play-offs for the last three seasons, after advancing to the final three seasons ago when beaten by Toulouse. They have done this through clever coaching (Mario Ledesma joining as forwards coach two seasons ago) and smart recruitment, notably Georgian and Argentinian as well as developing local talent.
The team which faces Ulster is drawn from seven different countries, yet has a strong French core numbering nine players. Nobody epitomises their transfer policy better than their 25-year-old scrumhalf Jonathan Pélissié, who has flourished since joining from Grenoble. Yet another from the French conveyor belt of dominant, playmaking, goal-kicking scrumhalves, Ulster will have prioritised the need to police him.
Pélissié’s 31-point haul in the 43-3 win at home to Clermont marked him out as a future scrumhalf for Les Bleus, and with Maxime Machenaud injured and Morgan Parra suspended for four weeks, that time may come next month.
Francois Trinh-Duc scored the other dozen points that day, including a brace of tries. A cause célèbre in Montpellier, where he owns a popular restaurant, Trinh-Duc’s questionable game management, defence and tactical kicking have not met with the approval of French national coaches, but Galthie accommodates his outhalf’s undoubted flair with a generalissimo at scrumhalf and a kicking 12. Trinh-Duc encapsulates Montpellier’s willingness to have a go from anywhere with their offloading and support play, and even metres from their own line they can be lethal.
Built up form
They have a strong scrum and big ball-carrying backrow in the athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo, Georgian bruiser Mamuka Gorgodze and number eight Kelian Galletier.
Montpellier also have built up form in Europe, having reached last season’s quarter-finals, and are unbeaten in six home games in the Cup. In juggling his resources, Galthié has seemingly reserved a stronger side for this tie. As well as rotating his frontrow as he does, with Nicholas Mas to spring from the bench, Thibault Privat is recalled to the secondrow and captain Ouedraogo to the backrow. Pélissié returns to the starting line-up, as does former Ulster winger Timoci Nagusa. Joint top of the Top 14, they are the form team in France.
Ulster won on French soil at the 14th attempt in Castres last season but considering Leinster only salvaged a draw with a last-ditch Johnny Sexton penalty two seasons ago, to escape with a bonus point – which is certainly within their compass – may not be an altogether unprofitable journey for Mark Anscombe’s team.