Santiago Arata (C) with Castres half-back partner Benjamin Urdapilleta (R) during last Friday's win over Toulouse
Paris (AFP) - Castres face Montpellier in Friday’s Top 14 final in a repeat of their 2018 meeting with both sides having experienced French domestic rugby’s rollercoaster ride since their last visits to the Stade de France.
When Pierre-Henry Broncan arrived at Stade Pierre Fabre two years ago he was in charge of recruitment.
Not long after, he became head coach under director of rugby Mauricio Reggiardo with Castres struggling near the relegation zone.
By March 2021 Reggiardo had left as 48-year-old Broncan, a close friend of England head coach Eddie Jones, and a squad he had signed in his first role at the club won seven of their last eight league games to finish seventh in the standings.
Unlike many Top 14 outfits, like Toulouse, who they beat in Friday’s semi-final, Castres’ set-up is shorn of big names but they topped the table at the end of this season with the 10th highest playing budget in the competition.
Broncan’s side includes players brought in from French lower divisions, Uruguay scrum-half Santiago Arata and hard-working forwards like Australians Tom Staniforth and Nick Champion de Crespigny.
“We don’t have internationals in every position, but we have a good squad,” winger Geoffrey Palis told reporters this week.
“The recruitment is well targeted. There’s a really good mix.
“There are naturally affinities but no guys put to one side, no foreigners on one side and the French another. Everyone is harmonious and we see that on the field,” he added.
It’s been a comparable story for Montpellier who were bottom of the Top 14 table early on in the 2020-2021 season before director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre took over as head coach from the sacked Xavier Garbajosa.
Ex-France winger Saint-Andre, 55, made his coaching return having led Les Bleus to a humiliating quarter-final defeat to New Zealand at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“Philippe suffered a lot when he was France head coach. People were harsh on him, sometimes in really violent ways,” Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad told Monday’s edition of newspaper Midi Olympique.
“After that he needed time to re-build, to love rugby like he used to. He’s happy again, I see it in his eyes,” he added.
Paolo Garbisi scored a drop goal in last Saturday's semi-final win over Bordeaux-Begles
- ‘Gem’ Garbisi -
One of Montpellier’s leading players this term has been Italy fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who signed a new deal this week.
Scrum-halves Benoit Paillaugue and Gela Aprasidze have taken over the tee in recent weeks despite the 22-year-old scoring 150 points in his maiden Top 14 season and keeping South Africa Rugby World Cup winner Handre Pollard out of the No. 10 jersey.
“The staff were very intelligent,” Syrian billionaire Altrad said.
“Since they took away the goal-kicking duties, Paolo is more free on the field. He’s a gem,” he added.
Altrad, whose scaffolding company also sponsors France, New Zealand and Australian franchise the Western Force, is still looking for his first French title in charge of Montpellier after arriving more than a decade ago.
On Friday, Altrad’s side will face a familiar foe in Castres fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, who kicked 22 points in 2018.
“Four years on, this defeat still hurts,” Altrad said.
“That night we were favourites, supposedly excellent.
“We fell from so high, things have changed here,” he added.
At Stade de France, Paris
Castres v Montpellier (1845GMT)