The only all-French clash of the round takes place on Saturday at Stade Marcel Michelin, as Clermont Auvergne welcome Montpellier. It is an immensely proud rugby region, and Montpellier, having played there already this season, will be aware of the fiercely partisan crowd that awaits them. They have also, however, tasted victory over their Top 14 rivals this season, having dispatched them 13-8 from their home ground in round two. That was a long time ago though. Since them Clermont have confirmed themselves as, if not the outright best, one of the best teams in Europe. They were unbeaten in the pool stages, scoring 213 points in six matches that included four bonus point wins. Quite simply, Montpellier have a mountain to climb.
Where to begin? It is a side teeming with quality, and there doesn’t look to be a weakness. French internationals Benjamin Kayser and Thomas Domingo pack down in the front row, with the latter widely regarded as one of the best looseheads in the world. Grizzled Scot Nathan Hines does the dirty work in the engine room, while club stalwart Julien Bonnaire in the back-row has an engine that never stops running. Morgan Parra typifies the French general stereotype, and while Brock James is an injury doubt young Ludovic Radosavljevic has been in good form in his absence. Then there is the small matter of Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie in the centres, and Nalaga, Sivivatu and Lee Byrne out wide. Even if there are injuries they can call on the likes of Alexandre Lapandry, Regan King and Jean-Marcellin Butin.
And to top all that off, they are playing at home. They haven’t lost there this season – in fact, their 66-21 thrashing of Agen last weekend was their 58th straight victory there. Fortress doesn’t really do it justice.
Player to watch – Wesley Fofana
How could it not be this man? They have quality throughout their team but when Fofana performs he is on another level. His quick, balanced running style combined with his slick hands and penchant for an offload make him one of the most dangerous centres in the world. He is one of the only backs in the northern hemisphere who can boast as strong a skill set as his Southern Hemisphere counterparts – and he’s not shy of defending, either. As complete a player as you could wish to see.
Montpellier were somewhat dark horses in the group stages, and anyone who saw their 23-3 win over Toulon will know how good they can be. The scoreline flattered the Toulonnais that day. They also have a backbone of proven international talent coursing through their team, with Mamuka Gorgodze, who was recently named Top 14 player of the year by Midi Olympique, always proving a handful. They can also call on internationals Fulgence Ouedrago and Johnnie Beattie in the back row to get over the gain-line. François Trinh-Duc, bizarrely overlooked by national coach Philippe Saint-André for much of the Six Nations, is a quality operator who knows how to control a game. Lucas Amorosino has been filling the fullback role of late – any avid followers of Argentina, or indeed Leicester Tigers fans, will know that on his day he can be very dangerous given a bit of space.
They currently sit sixth in the Top 14, no mean feat given the quality of some of the sides below them. They are not to be written off, that is for sure.
Player to watch – Mamuka Gorgodze
The Gorgodzilla, as he is known, has quite a reputation across the channel. It is not always pretty – for that matter, it is not always legal – but the giant Georgian quite literally drags his team over the line in some games. Capable of playing in the second row as well as at blindside flanker, it doesn’t really matter where he ends up – he will cause Clermont problems. Anyone who saw the mammoth brawl in the Belgium v Georgia game recently will know the dark side of Gorgodze’s game, but if he can keep himself on the pitch (which is far from guaranteed) he is a genuine threat.
These two teams are amongst the top five points scorers in the competition – Clermont sit second with an average of 36 points per game, while Montpellier are fifth with 28. There could be points aplenty, then, and with the firepower on show the neutrals will be hoping for an epic. It is desperately difficult to look beyond Clermont when they play at home. In fact, it is desperately difficult to look beyond them wherever they play. Montpellier will fight valiantly, but it will be too big an ask for them. Clermont by 10.