|Harlequins and Montpellier square off in the European Rugby Challenge Cup final this Friday evening.|
The 2015/16 European rugby season is fast approaching its close but there are still a few showpiece finals to be played before Europe’s top rugby players get some well-deserved R’n’R. The first of these grand finals is the European Challenge Cup final which will be contested between Conor O'shea's Harlequins and Jake White’s Montpellier.
To Win (80 Mins)
Harlequins 15/10 | Draw 17/1 | Montpellier 12/20
To Lift Cup
Harlequins 15/10 | Montpellier 5/10
This competition offers Harlequins their best shot at silverware. The London-based club have endured an underwhelming domestic campaign that has seen them fail to make it to the semi-finals of the Aviva Premiership. While they have managed some impressive results on the domestic front – an opening day victory over Wasps and a ninth-round win over the mighty Saracens being the obvious highlights – their downfall has been their lack of consistency.
Their European campaign has been in complete contrast to their domestic season. They only lost a solitary game during the group phase of the Challenge Cup and racked up an impressive 225 points while only conceding 123. They continued their run to the final by defeating local rivals London Irish by a scoreline of 38-30 and then put in a registered an impressive 30-6 victory over Grenoble in the semis.
Key to Harlequins' success in the tournament has been their dynamic back three of fullback Mike Brown and wingers Marland Yarde and Ross Chisolm. The trio has been sensational on the counter this term and their link-up play could prove decisive this weekend.
They aren’t the only combination in the backline worth mentioning however, with the halfback pairing of Danny Care and former All Black Nick Evans also playing integral roles in Harlequins’ progression to the final.
The 35-year-old Evans has rolled back the years with his displays this term. His passing has been as crisp as a well-brewed beer while his performances with the boot leave one to question whether his boot sponsor has snuck a GPS system into his togs. Whatever the case may be, his howitzer-like right foot is likely to play a big role this Friday.
That’s enough about the “skinnies’ though, let’s now turn our attention to the pack.
Montpellier have one of the fiercest front rows in the game – anything with a du Plessis brother in it is rather frightful prospect to face – who are capable of tearing any opposition engine room apart. Luckily for ‘Quins however, they have a vastly experienced front row who have fronted up to the du Plessis brothers on the international stage.
Welsh international, Adam Jones and English international Joe Marler are the two options at loose-head for O'Shea. Both players are capable of giving Jannie du Plessis a tough evening. Like Marler and Jones, Harlequins' hooker Dave Ward also falls into that wily old front rower category. The journeymen may not have the explosive power of opposite number Bismark du Plessis but he does the basics right and that’s precisely what you want from a man who’s going to be tossing the ball into the lineout for you during a final.
If the aforementioned 'Quins forwards can find their best form this weekend then they may well be able to lay a solid foundation for Nick Evans to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
I have to say, I was a bit skeptical when Jake White took over at Montpellier. There’s no disputing that White is a tactical genius but he’s not the greatest player manager to have walked the earth. And in France, being able to manage high profile talent, that is as temperamental as Jose Mourinho, is key to forming a championship-winning side.
After being severely criticized by the local faithful for fielding overseas stars instead of local lads at the start of the season, White's tenure looked as though it may have been short-lived, however, an upswing of results, particularly in the Challenge Cup, has seen the Montpellier crowd soften towards White and his imports.
Speaking of the imports, White’s South African contingent have been in immaculate form. While we all knew exactly what Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis would bring to the table, the jury was out on how the enigma that is Frans Steyn would perform. The former Sharks stalwart proved that the skeptics were well off the boil predicting a calamitous season for him. The burly utility back has illustrated that his best days are far from behind him with some typically brutal displays.
Steyn isn’t the only new Montpellier recruit to hit the headlines. Former Wallaby Jessie Mogg has also proved a shrewd acquisition. The fullback’s massive left boot may just be the ideal weapon to counteract Nick Evan’s astute tactical kicking game.
The two other Montpellier men to keep an eye out for this weekend are Pierre Spies and Francois Trinh-Duc. While the former’s incredible pace and power are common knowledge in South African rugby circles, the latter’s exploits are not as well documented.
The versatile flyhalf is a great asset for Montpellier however. He’s a ten who likes to take the ball to the gainline and offload to inside runners just before making contact. And with Frans Steyn more than likely to be on his inside shoulder, the pivot’s short offloads may reap dividends.
The Stats That Matter
Onto the statistical analysis now, and there are quite a few little quirks here. The two sides met twice in the group stage of the tournament with 'Quins running out 41-18 victors in the opening round of the tournament. They were hammered 42-9 in the return leg, however.
Harlequins last won a European Challenge Cup trophy back in 2011 when they defeated French opposition in the form of Stade Francais, while this will be Montpellier’s first appearance in a Challenge Cup final.
Verdict: Montpellier 12/10
I expect this one will be a rather tight run thing with Montpellier edging a win through a late long-range penalty.