Mohad Altrad seems like one of the good guys. That’s not often the perception of Top 14 owners but go all the way back to last Autumn when England were searching for a head coach, and all the attention was on Altrad as Jake White brought Montpellier over to The Stoop to play Harlequins in the Challenge Cup.
This was the pre-Eddie Jones era, when England were in turmoil and peaking in their spell of Rugby World Cup grief. All eyes were on White’s next move with his name heavily linked to taking over England following Stuart Lancaster’s exit.
White ended up staying, pledging his loyalty to Altrad and Montpellier and vowing to continue the club’s project, which last season culminated with a Top 14 semi-final place and winning the Challenge Cup against, of course, Harlequins.
Altrad’s story is remarkable. Born in the Syrian desert, he moved to France without speaking a word of French and carved out a career as a scaffolding billionaire. Rags to riches doesn’t quite do him justice. That takes some drive.
Back to the rugby and step one feels complete. If anything’s become clear over the last two seasons, it’s that Altrad and White have a burning desire for success in the Top 14 and Europe that is some way from being quenched. The list of signings tell you as much, with Montpellier signing the Du Plessis brothers to go with an already large contingent of South Africans at the club, a recruitment policy that has divided supporters.
There is no room for sentiment, however. Look at the case of François Trinh-Duc, the long-term servant of the club who started out in the juniors playing alongside Fulgence Ouedraogo and who after his departure was announced was left out for Montpellier’s final home game of the season at the Altrad Stadium. The move dismayed supporters – Ouedraogo memorably weeping as Trinh-Duc gave his parting speech to supporters after a match.
Unpopular? Absolutely. But it changed nothing in the mind of White and Altrad publicly backed him too.
If 2015/2016 was the first wave of Montpellier’s assault on European rugby, then look at the reinforcements now filing in.
Two of the best wings in Super Rugby – Nemani Nadolo and Joe Tomane – is a major statement similar to when Toulon moved for Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell three years ago. Konstantin Mikautadze, the giant Georgian, has been plucked straight from the Toulon pack. Former Racing 92 centre Alexandre Dumoulin will add plenty of directness, while Antoine Guillamon and Vincent Martin are smart recruits from relegated Oyonnax.
They all join a squad bursting with power, especially up front. Montpellier’s pack will take plenty of prisoners next season, happy to dish out bruises directly through their forwards and kicking game but all the time having the finishers to open things up when necessary. Nadolo, in particular, feels ready to make a more significant impact on the league than when he played for Bourgoin.
Make no mistake, Altrad and White have put together a group of players that isn’t subtle. But what a force.
Ben Coles, Pundit Arena