Our rugby writer takes a look at Sunday's second French Top 14 Play-off being contested by Montpellier & Castres.
The French Top 14 is drawing ever closer to its grand finale. Two sides whose chances of advancing to the final are hanging by a thread will lock horns this Sunday in one of the two playoffs.
So will it be Jake White’s Montpellier who claim a semi-final berth or will Christophe Urios’ Castres pull off a shock victory?
Montpellier v Castres Olympique | Sunday 12 June | Altrad Stadium | 16:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Montpellier 3/10 |Draw 20/1 | Castres 26/10
It has been a fantastic year for Montpellier, although if you had to listen to some of the fans you may well think otherwise. Despite winning the European Rugby Challenge Cup and making it into the French Top 14 play-offs, head coach Jake White continues to face stern criticism from the local faithful. Their axe to grind? White’s selection of overseas players rather than French nationals.
Regardless of what the locals think, White will field a side with a heavy international flavour to it for this play-off. South Africans, Frans Steyn, the brothers du Plessis, Piere Spies, and Dimitri Catrakillis are all likely to feature from the start while Australians Nic White and Jesse Mogg also guaranteed a starting berth.
With names like that on the team list, you can see why White is reluctant to field the likes of Francois Trinh-Duc and Nicolas Mas.
White’s international contingent are going to have to be on the ball this weekend however, as while Castres don’t have that many superstars among their squad, they do make up for their lack of quality through sheer grit and determination.
Montpellier can ill-afford to take their opponents lightly and a repeat of the lackadaisical performance they put in against Racing last week is likely to see their season come to a disappointing end.
That 40-25 loss may have ended Montpellier’s chance of avoiding this playoff but it could prove to be a much-needed wake-up call. White’s side have enjoyed a relatively comfortable run into the knockout phase of the league, and they may have started to take things for granted. If they heed the lessons of last week then they could well go all the way in the tournament.
I have to be honest and admit that this Sunday will be the first time I see Castres in action this season. The team from Southern France managed to scrape their way into the play-offs by virtue of a 35-14 upset victory over Stade Francais last Sunday.
While their squad is nowhere near as talented as Montpellier’s, they do have some handy players who are capable of making a big impact this Sunday.
Rory Kockott – who had an absolute blinder last week, scoring two tries and setting up another – is likely to be the key man for Castres. The former Natal Sharks man has always offered a threat with ball in hand but it’s the way in which he’s matured and has learnt to control a game that is most impressive.
Like I said earlier, I haven’t watched a Castres game yet this season but I have seen Kockott turn out for the French national side, albeit some 12 months ago. He’s a real asset to have in your squad as he not only kicks well out of hand but he’s also got an impressive goal kicking record.
Kockott isn’t the only player from the Southern Hemisphere that could make an impact for Castres. Former All Blacks wingers Rudi Wulf and Sitiveni Sivivatu are also on Castres' books. These two veterans are in the Autumn of their careers and would love nothing more than to add another trophy to their collections. If either of these men take to the field this Saturday, you can be assured that the Montpellier wingers are going to be in for a long afternoon.
The Stats That Matter
Onto the stats that matter now and while they’re always good to have a gander at, this particular set doesn’t really indicate much in way of how Sunday’s game will swing.
Montpellier managed to win 18 of their 26 league games this season while Castres only won 15. Montpellier scored 723 points while conceding 569 during the round robin phase of the tournament while Castres managed to score 650 while only conceding 496 points.
Castres won the first round robin game between the sides by 34 to 19 while Montpellier managed a narrow 3 point victory in the return leg.
Verdict: Montpellier 3/10
Like the Racing Game, this is another one to stick in your weekend multiple.