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HomeSportsTop 14 final: former rugby "mercenary club", Montpellier has reinvented itself

Top 14 final: former rugby “mercenary club”, Montpellier has reinvented itself

Four years later, the poster is the same but the faces have changed. As in 2018, Montpellier finds Castres in the final of the Top 14, Friday June 24, with the objective of winning the first Brennus shield in its history. Still, the Tarnais still present in the club may find it difficult to recognize the team they largely beat at the time (29-13) at the Stade de France.

Whether it’s the mistral or the tramontane, a wind of change has indeed blown hard in the Hérault in the meantime. After having piled up the stars in their workforce, the leaders of Montpellier have reviewed their plan to bring a new dynamic to the club. Paradoxically, the symbol of this revival is a player who, at the time of his arrival, already had most of his professional career in the rearview mirror: Guilhem Guirado.

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At 33 (he is 36 today), the international hooker (74 caps) landed directly from Japan after having shown his captain’s stripes for the last time with the Blues during the 2019 World Cup. “This arrival sounded like a little air of the end of his career, but he was still ready to play at the highest level”, recalls Julien Tomas, then in the staff of Montpellier Hérault Rugby (MHR) after having spent a good part of his career defending the Cistes jersey (between 2004 and 2013 then from 2018 to 2019).

With him, Guilhem Guirado shaped his image of “captain courage” cultivated against his will over the disappointments suffered by the Blues during the last decade. “He carried everything on his shoulders for years”confirms the former three-quarter center Maxime Mermoz, now a consultant for BeIN Sports and who knows Guirado well for having worked with him in Perpignan, Toulon and in the France team.

South African fashion

A boon for Montpellier, which was then a figure “of a club a few mercenaries”, remembers Julien Tomas. This signature, together with that of other French people ready to play the leading roles immediately (Anthony Bouthier in 2019, Vincent Rattez in 2020, etc.), came to put a definitive end to the policy put in place by President Mohed Altrad, at the head of the club since 2011.

Guilhem Guirado with MHR supporters after the Top 14 semi-final won against Bordeaux.

Desiring to win, and to win quickly, the billionaire businessman decided to draw inspiration from the Toulon model, an absolute reference in Europe in the early 2010s thanks to stars like the Briton Jonny Wilkinson. In 2014, he hired Jake White, the coach of South Africa during the victory of the Springboks at the 2007 World Cup. The coach does not come alone: ​​he carries in his suitcases South African players who come every year in the south of France, even after the technician left in 2017.

Read also: Rugby: European cups open to… South African franchises

But the team does not take. While Guilhem Guirado multiplies the finals and wins the European Cup in 2015 with Toulon, the Montpellier residents chain the seasons without flavor and especially without a title. Only a Challenge Cup – the little sister of the Champions Cup, the “big” European Cup – in 2016 rewarded a group shaken by controversy.

The support to weld the group

In 2017, six players, for example, accused management of having waited for the end-of-season barbecue to tell them that the club was not keeping them. The same day, hooker Charles Géli got carried away in the columns of the Olympic noon. “Seventy percent of the group don’t speak my language and the guys who’ve been there for two years can barely speak a word of French. I should have gone to play abroad, I would have known why it was up to me to adapt! »

Since then, things have changed. But not without difficulty. Arrived in 2019, coach Xavier Garbajosa is experiencing the worst difficulties in getting his team to play. “He arrived with an ambitious, very airy game project. But it didn’t take because he still had the squad of the old coaches, who played a more closed game., describes Julien Tomas. As a result, Garbajosa was dismissed from his post in 2021 and while the MHR dreamed of the final stages, he had to end the season fighting for maintenance.

A blessing in disguise according to Maxime Mermoz. “At the foot of the wall, the team managed to react. It’s the kind of moments that unite a group. » With Guilhem Guirado as captain, the Héraultais save their place in the elite and push the euphoria to win a second Challenge Cup at the end of the season against the English of Leicester.

“Be heard from the kick-off”

After falling back into their ways at the start of the Top 14 2021-2022 vintage, the Montpellier residents have nevertheless found new momentum this season under the leadership of Philippe Saint-André. “Efforts have been made upstream, the club has rediscovered its DNA, rejoices Julien Tomas. Before, the club did not care about training, each problem was compensated by recruitment. » Thanks in particular to a series of eight consecutive victories between October 2021 and February 2022, the Cists have comfortably taken up residence at the top of the rankings, to finally finish in second place. then defeat Bordeaux in the semi-finals (19-10).

“When I look at the squad, I see a team full of leaders and that changes from the past, observes Maxime Mermoz. Someone like Guirado isn’t going to talk a lot, but he’s going to lead by example. » That’s good, the MHR prefers to move forward hidden and leave the spotlight to other clubs. “Maybe fewer people speak well of Montpellier, but that’s okay. The most important thing is to be heard from the kick-off.”also recalled the hooker during the press conference before the semi-final.

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While waiting for the final, the future is already being prepared on the side of Montpellier, with always the same policy. The recruitment of French nuggets such as the opening half Louis Carbonel (23 years old) or the scrum half Léo Coly (22 years old) goes in this direction – by also making it possible to respect the quota of “JIFF” (players from the training French), set up by the National Rugby League. But we will have to do without Guilhem Guirado: sixteen years after his debut in the professional world, the hooker has extended the pleasure to the end but will bow out at the end of the season.

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