Struggling Montpellier Hérault sign Gabriel Ibitoye

Following reports that Bath back row Zach Mercer will sacrifice his chances of England caps by joining Montpellier Hérault, it has been announced that Gabriel Ibitoye will join the club as a ‘medical joker’.  Neither will be impressed by their new club’s current form, however. In Round 14 they lead 19-0 at half time away to Brive, but ended up losing 23-22. They remain 13th, in the relegation zone.

For a team with a very wealthy owner and several household names in the squad, why are they performing poorly?

19 point lead surrendered at Brive

Since their impressive win away at Clermont Auvergne in early December, Montpellier Hérault has lost their last four matches in league and cup. Losing to the likes of Leinster and Toulouse is not anything to be ashamed of, but the circumstances of the Brive defeat will hurt.

Brive, who have bounced between the top two divisions in recent years, are not in the top tier of French clubs; they are the sort of team Montpellier should expect to defeat. Indeed, they went 13-0 up inside the first 15 minutes and were in control of the match. A team with the experience and talent of Guilhem Guirado, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Cobus Reinach, Anthony Bouthier to name just a few should win from that position.

Montpellier Herault have been heavily impacted by covid-19 and have played the joint fewest games in the league (11). But three wins from the opening games cost Xavier Garbajosa his job, and Phillipe Saint-Andre is now in charge. Whilst they are only two points behind 12th placed Bayonne, they are a long way off the Champions Cup qualification places. With winless Agen seemingly already consigned to relegation, the pressure and spotlight is on Montpellier.

The European Cup has been a particular issue for Montpellier Hérault. They finished joint bottom of their pool last season with just two wins, and haven’t made a quarter-final since winning the Challenge Cup in 2016. For an ambitious owner like Mohed Altrad and the investment he has made, this is not good enough.

Can English stars improve Montpellier Hérault’s fortunes?

Gabriel Ibitoye joins Montpellier from Agen, the club rooted to the bottom of the table. Eyebrows were raised when Ibitoye joined Agen from Harlequins in the summer, and it certainly hasn’t worked out for the promising winger. Whilst his personal performances have been ok, Agen have been in turmoil. Behind a strong pack and in a backline alongside French internationals, Montpellier could provide the platform for Ibitoye to properly demonstrate his skills in the Top 14.

The expected arrival of Zach Mercer follows other exports from the Premiership like Cobus Reinach and Alex Losowski, plus star signing Handré Pollard. On paper, Montpellier should be up there with other French teams such as Clermont or Racing 92 challenging for titles.  It may be harsh to judge on this interrupted and unprecedented season, and perhaps Saint-Andre can turn the ship around. Assuming they are able to remain in the Top14, Mercer is the right kind of physical, abrasive player who can help drive them up the table.

Important match vs Castres to come

Following the postponement of the Champions Cup, Montpellier will now face Castres on 17th January, a match previously delayed because of covid.

This will be a very important game, with Castres sitting just six points above Montpellier in 10th in the French Top 14. Defeat would leave Saint-Andre’s side with a lot of work to do to move away from the bottom pack, leaving relegation as a worry unlikely to go away any time soon.

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