White stamp now on Montpellier

Date published: June 18 2015

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Jake White officially arrived in Montpellier six months ago but with pre-season and a squad overhaul his reign is just about to begin.

Monday night marked the closing of the transfer window in France and no club will change more than les Cistes, where White has overhauled a squad which could feature as few as three Frenchmen in their strongest team.

The off-season influx has come mainly from South Africa, with the likes of Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Pierre Spies, Jacques du Plessis and Demetri Catrakilis leading the way, while White has also raided the Brumbies, who he coached for a year, to bring in Nic White and Jesse Mogg.

As a result, Montpellier's position as one of the leading producers of French talent appears to be coming to an end.

At the heart of Montpellier's transformation into a top tier team in the mid-2000s were 'Les Quatres Fantastiques' of Louis Picamoles, François Trinh-Duc, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Julien Tomas, who all made their French debuts in 2008 after coming out of the Montpellier academy. There are just two remaining, while the more recent academy products have struggled to establish themselves.

Next year there will be just five home grown players in the squad (Trinh-Duc, Ouedraogo, Pierre Bérard, Kélian Galletier and Ilian Perraux), and ambitious president Mohed Altrad has made it clear that he will happily pay the fines for failing to meet the league's minimum requirement on French-produced players (JIFF).

In fairness to Altrad, White has enjoyed great success almost everywhere he has gone, and he has backed him 100 percent to bring in his own players to follow a rigid game plan.

There couldn't be a starker contrast with Fabien Galthié's Montpellier side, renowned for their ability to play off the cuff and led by the talismanic Trinh-Duc.

Arguably White wouldn't be in the job had Trinh-Duc not broken his leg mid-season. Montpellier went from second to out of the play-off places in his absence and although their form improved when he returned, it was too late for Galthié, who had already been given his marching orders.

The question now, is what happens with Trinh-Duc? 

Montpellier fans have already had to come to terms with a number of stalwarts being cast into the wilderness, including the likes of Alex Tulou and Alexandre Bias, both deemed surplus to requirements and banished from first team training after years of service.

But if Trinh-Duc were to be sidelined, how many fans will remain to watch the team? It's not a question of form; prior to his injury Trinh-Duc was nailed on for an international return and he's done enough since the leg break to crack France's World Cup squad.

However it's hard to see how Trinh-Duc fits into White's philosophy that prioritises structure above all else. And with Catrakilis, one of the top three goal-kickers in Super Rugby this season, on his way, Trinh-Duc will face a very real challenge for his place.

Speaking to the Midi Olympique last week, Trinh-Duc admitted that the transition has not been easy, and was candid about his concerns over the effect of the massive turnover on squad cohesion.

"We've come out of a season of transition, after years of being near the top of the table with an attractive game focused mainly on attack," he explained. 

"Now, it's a completely different game plan, a more Anglo-Saxon style. Jake White has had to work quickly so far but I'm looking forward to seeing what his project looks like next year, with preparation and off-season work.

"I understand his decision (to reduce the number of home grown players) but it's hard to accept. If you look closely, there aren't many players left who were there four or five years ago. 

"Without wanting to criticise the guys coming in, who I'm sure are good people and good players, I think the team is not just a sum of the individuals. 

"I've always thought that to have a good team, you need not only good players, but also to get on well, to have cohesion and concentration at training. What Oyonnax did this year with less money but a collective strength and what from the outside seems an exceptional team spirit, makes me think that I'm not too far off."

While those responses were remarkably open for a top level sportsman, it was his reaction to questions over his future that should really concern Montpellier fans.

Although not explicit about wanting to leave, Trinh-Duc revealed that when his contract is up next season, he could look elsewhere.

"The club has changed a lot, has evolved. It's not that I want to play only with my friends. I want to win titles and make a difference. But I know it's difficult to create team spirit by regularly changing the squad. I look at what happens elsewhere and I see most teams at the top, like Clermont or Toulouse, only change three or four players.

"I'm not thinking about my future for now, there is the World Cup coming up so that will come later. But each time I've extended my contract at Montpellier, I've looked at what is happening elsewhere."

White has enjoyed huge success at Super Rugby and Test level, but he will need to act quickly to match it in France. After all, despite the struggles under Galthié, at the moment he was fired Montpellier were still in the top six, managing seven wins through 13 games, as opposed to the four in the second half of the season.

As we saw on Saturday in the Top 14 final, French rugby is not all about free-flowing backs, and Vern Cotter has shown that outsiders can enjoy success. However Cotter was able to adapt to the French mentality, while Toulon's foreign legion have been led by the most French of coaches in Bernard Laporte.

White, on the other hand, is an outsider, leading a squad of outsiders, while trying to appease an ambitious president.

If can't get it right immediately, Trinh-Duc will likely seek pastures new, taking the last vestiges of Montpellier's identity with him.

By Paul Eddison

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