Following the euphoria of last week’s hard fought win against Connacht comes another big test in the form of big-spending Montpellier. After a loss to Harlequins at home followed a comfortable win in Calvisano, it’s pretty much make or break in this double header with the French side as Cardiff look to match last year’s effort of reaching the quarter-finals.
As things stand Harlequins have all but won the group, as they sit top with maximum points going into a back-to-back matches with whipping boys Calvisano. It’s then close between Cardiff and Montpellier for that runner-up spot which could give us a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, only an extra 12 points scored by the French side keeping them ahead of us at the moment. Realistically we need to come out better than Les Cistes over the next week or so, as they host Harlequins and visit Calvisano in January, while we do the opposite, giving them a slight advantage in my eyes.
They also have a slight advantage in the bank balance department, meaning they could sign South African quartet Pierre Spies, Jannie and Bismarck Du Plessis, and CJ Van Der Linde after the World Cup. This hasn’t necessarily equated to success though, as they’ve only won once in their last four league games since the World Cup, the most recent loss last week, 34-19 at Castres, when before that they’d only lost once in the previous six. That up and down form leaves them 7th in the Top14, right in mid-table. It’s a similarly inconsistent story in the Challenge Cup as a first round heavy loss to Harlequins, 41-18 at The Stoop, was followed by a 64-0 thrashing of Calvisano at home.
We’ve only encountered the French side twice before, when we were drawn in the same Heineken Cup pool back in 2012/13. It was the December double header where we clashed that time as well, Montpellier doing the double over us as we went down 24-35 at CAP, and 34-21 in France. The good news is that a few players who survive from those games have form against Les Cistes, Patchell kicking all the points in the home game, before Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert scored tries away. Although Lloyd Williams didn’t have a fantastic time as he was sent-off at CAP.
It goes without saying that our defence will have to be above it’s game, as it needs to be with any French side. If that can happen, and we defend with the same passion we’ve done in the last two weeks against Ospreys and Connacht, just with slightly less missed tackles, then I’m confident we can get a result. Scoring has not been a problem for us this season, and Montpellier’s defence hasn’t been on top form, with 264 points conceded being the fifth worst in the Top14, so keep the defence right and there’s a chance we can outscore them.
To add a bit more experience to our back line, Danny Wilson has left Jarrod Evans on the bench this week, with Dan Fish coming in and Rhys Patchell moving back to fly-half. However, a lot of experience has been taken out of the front line, with Gethin Jenkins swapping with Sam Hobbs, an interesting move to say the least. Elsewhere, there are injury-forced changes as ‘unfortunately’ Lou Reed is still going through the return to play protocols so James Down takes is place, while really unfortunately last week’s MotM, Manoa Vosawai, wasn’t able to recover from the leg injury picked up right at the end, Josh Navidi returning from a neck injury to take his place. Hopefully it’s not too soon for Navidi after a few weeks off. However, the depth of the flanker injury problem is revealed by Scott Andrews covering the back row/lock areas on the bench with Cam Dolan. Not ideal!
A good chance to test ourselves against one of the strongest sides in Europe though, and it comes at a time when confidence should be high and performance levels are on the way up. Looking forward to, hopefully, another classic European night under the lights at the Arms Park. Come on Cardiff!!
Cardiff record v Montpellier: W 0 L 2 D 0
Cardiff form: WLLLLLLWLLW
Montpellier form: WLWWWWLLLWWL
Cardiff top try scorer: Tom James (5)
Montpellier top try scorers: Marvin O’Connor, Timoci Nagusa (5)
Cardiff top points scorer: Rhys Patchell (115)
Montpellier top points scorer: Benoit Paillaugue (80)
Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU) – Munster based referee who has been around for a fair few years now, but doesn’t come across Cardiff often in Europe or the Pro12. Has refereed five games this season, handing out five yellow cards, so better keep the benches warm for someone to take 10 minutes at some point.