We figured that Vern Cotter had a bit about him when he became the first coach in the professional era to mould Scotland into a winning team. On his watch, the Scots won more internationals (19) than they lost (17) and now the Kiwi coach is on the brink of making more history. Should his Montpellier side win today’s Top 14 final against Castres, it would be a first for the club and a first for their Kiwi coach too.
Should Montpellier triumph Cotter would become the first coach in Top 14 history to lead two clubs to their maiden title. Clermont had yet to win when he coached them to victory in 2010 and Montpellier have yet to lift the Bouclier de Brennus.
A win today would go a long way to justifying his lumpy pay packet, reportedly around €1 million per annum. Cotter is said to be the highest-paid coach in world rugby.
Any success for Montpellier will represent a small win for Scottish rugby. Not only did Cotter take one-time Scotland stalwart Nathan Hines with him as a lineout expert but former Gala great Richie Gray is also at Montpellier in his role as contact/breakdown specialist and even Scotland physiotherapist Stevie Mutch followed Cotter to the south of France for a stint, although he is currently back in his post with the national squad in North America.
Montpellier start as favourites against the side that only just sneaked into the post-season and victory tonight would mark the completion of an incredible journey for the Occitan club.
In the closed shop that the Top 14 sometimes appears to be, they are the outsiders’ outsider.
Montpellier didn’t step foot in the Top 14 until 2003, and without the largesse of current chairman Mohed Altrad. They flirted with relegation in 2009 and they made their first play-offs in 2011, the year that the Syrian-born millionaire invested in the club, when they lost 15-10 to Toulouse in the final.
The first French international from the club, Fulgence Ouedraogo, was capped as recently as 2007.
Fast-forward to the present and Montpellier have been the team to beat. They topped the regular season with 17 wins, one less than rivals Racing, but with a handy 98 tries, scored at a rate of 3.8 per match. It meant they finished with 11 try bonus points and top spot in the league.
The season has not been without its challenges. Before a first-versus-second match in March against Racing 92, the TV cameras caught Montpellier hooker Bismarck du Plessis and his team-mate, prop Mohamed Haouas, having what Bill McLaren used to call “a bit of argy-bargy” before the match had even started. There are some who will point to Altrad’s millions as the reason for Montpellier’s success – and they are right to do so, but only up to a point. Montpellier are hard up against the €10.5m salary cap but so too are Racing 92, Clermont and Stade Francais.
The latter finished three points above relegated Oyonnax, while 2017 champions Clermont were a lowly ninth. Even with a money tree like Altrad to tap, you have to spend it smartly.
The Kiwi inherited a squad that was stacked with South Africans from Jake White’s time at the club and he has at least started the process of getting a better balance into the team; Louis Picamoles returned to the club where he started his career last summer and Ruan Pienaar was signed from Ulster to partner his marquee signing, stand-off Aaron Cruden, the former All Black stand-off with exactly 50 caps for New Zealand. With those three in situ, the spine of the team is bullet-proof.
Montpellier will start this evening’s final at the Stade de France as favourites but Castres seem to like it that way. They finished sixth in the regular season and had to beat first Toulouse and then European finalists Racing in the play-offs.
Unlike their big-spending opponents, Castres live on a modest budget and boast a largely home-grown squad that reflects that reality. Rory Kockott, the South African-born scrum-half, who has represented France 11 times, is probably their best-known player.
Castres won the title in 2013 and were runners up a year later. It promises to be a great occasion and, should Montpellier prevail, “Stern Vern” may even crack a smile.