RUGBY / TOP 14. With its Shield, Montpellier dreams bigger

Alongside the centenarians that are the majority of French rugby clubs – Lyon (1896), Stade Français (1883), Clermont (1911) or even Castres (1906), its unfortunate rival in the final (29-10) of the Top 14 Friday evening – Montpellier Hérault Rugby is a young man, born in 1986.

Acquired in 2011 by the billionaire of Syrian origin Mohed Altrad, at the head of a group specializing in the provision of services to industry and construction, the MHR until now only had a European Shield (2004 ), two European Challenges (2016, 2021) and a Pro D2 title (2003) to his credit.

In a city best known for its football teams, champions of France in 2012, and especially men’s handball (14 titles), rugby was until recently a poor relation, in a South rocked by the exploits of Béziers and Narbonne .

Faced with the heavyweights of the championship, the MHR, with the current budget of 28.5 million euros, the seventh in the championship, therefore sought “to shorten the time”, summed up Mohed Altrad.

Saint-André, Altrad’s winning bet

“I took over the club in 2011, there were many things that did not exist at the time, there were no structures, relations with the communities were not really established”, recalled Thursday the businessman, whose company is the jersey sponsor of the XV of France but also that of the All Blacks.

Mohed Altrad, who will appear in September with the president of the French Rugby Federation (FFR), Bernard Laporte, for influence peddling, corruption and abuse of corporate assets, was “decried but this success, he deserves it […] it is thanks to him if today we are there, ”said former referee Alexandre Ruiz, in charge of rucks and discipline at the MHR, on Friday evening.

For Philippe Saint-André, its president especially had “the” cojones “to call (it), it had to be done” knowing how much he had fallen out of favor after his time at the head of the Blues (2011-2015), has he launched after the final.

“PSA”, 55, indeed joined the MHR in February 2020 as director of rugby, away from the field, with the mission of structuring the club and managing recruitment. Less than a year later, pressed by its president in front of the sporting situation of Montpellier, he “puts on his shorts, a little tight for (him)” and takes control of the Hérault team, then plunged to 13th place in the Top 14.

In eighteen months, he transformed the club, saving it from relegation last year, with the added bonus of a second European Challenge title, bringing it its first Shield on Friday evening and winning, according to President Emmanuel Macron, “as a stronghold of French rugby”.

Even before the coronation at the Stade de France, the contracts of Saint-André, as well as those of his co-trainers Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (defense), Olivier Azam (forwards) and Alexandre Ruiz, had been extended until 2025.

A stable workforce

Stability also within the workforce, since the Italian opener Paolo Garbisi and the second lines Bastien Chalureau and Florian Verhaeghe have also resigned in the Hérault.

And with the arrivals of the Mons nugget Léo Coly in 9, the Toulon opener Louis Carbonel and the New Zealand winger from Bordeaux Ben Lam, the MHR can see next season coming with serenity, even if it will now be in the “chased” position.

Not enough to scare captain Yacouba Camara, who “dreams of lifting several Shields”: “this club still deserves a lot of other things,” he said after the final.

“We are here to play with the ‘big guys’ and believe me, next season, we won’t let go,” added English third line Zach Mercer. “We have to work hard and put everything we have to defend our title next season,” said Garbisi. But, he promised, “we will be there”.

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