The table-toppers Montpellier face the 2014 winners Castres this weekend at the Stade de France in a final that is one of the hardest to call in years. Montpellier have had a season to remember, winning 19 of their 28 games and scoring the most tries in the competition, with 106.
Castres have gone under the radar all season, with Montpellier, Toulon, Racing and the fantastic story of underdogs Lyon, making the highlight reels throughout the year. They provided the shock result last weekend, trumping Racing in a ferocious encounter at the Grand Stade de Lyon. Their opponents will be wary of the dangers that their abrasive game poses.
We look at 3 key battles that may well be the winning and losing of the game on Saturday.
Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden vs Rory Kockott and Ben Urdapilletta
The halfback pairings on show this evening are truly world class. All 4 of them are competent kickers at goal, with Pienaar and Urdapilletta putting on exhibitions in the semi-finals to pull their sides through. The former springbok scrum-half amassed 17 points without missing a kick, aiding his side to defeat minnows Lyon. The former Argentina stand-off has been crucial to Castres all season, scoring 299 points so far to leave him 2nd in the points-scoring table. Both players have averaged just over 10 points a game, so whoever gets the upper-hand from the tee tomorrow may have the final say this season. The two are also clearly the best playmakers in this year’s league season by some margin, with both assisting 17 tries for their respective sides. The closest players to them have only amassed 11.
Aaron Cruden is no slouch either, assisting his teammates to the try-line no less than 8 times, making 14 clean breaks and beating 29 defenders, despite being injured for a large portion of the season. Both he and Rory Kockott threaten the defensive line a lot more than their halfback partners, so this matchup will be definitely one to watch. Cruden allows his dangerous backline to attack around the fringes, by taking the ball flat to the line and committing defenders in tight. Kockott is one of those darty scrum-halves that cannot be given an inch of space. With a keen eye for a gap he can be lethal from anywhere on the field. He ways in with 5 try assists and 15 clean breaks, beating 26 defenders, which averages out at one a game. He is also surprisingly adept at the breakdown and has won 18 turnovers for his side so far this season, a massive stat for any number 9. Whichever pairing can get the upper hand will likely be on the winning side.
Nemani Nadolo vs Armand Battle
The flying Fijian is 2nd only to Chris Ashton in this season’s top try-scoring list, with 19. He has been extremely difficult to contain, beating 63 defenders and making 1154m on the left wing. He averages a try every game so it will be up to Battle to prevent that from happening. Castres new signing has been a great success in attack, scoring 12 tries, finishing joint 3rd in the try-scoring table. His defence hasn’t been quite as good though and with a tackle completion percentage of 78%, his wing may be an area of exploitation for their neighbours from the South of France. However, Nadolo’s success in the tackle area has been even worse, with a percentage of just 64%. Whoever can outscore their opponent will have a big say in their team having a shot at the title.
Louis Picamoles vs The Entire Castres Back-Row
Picamoles has been a revelation since signing from Northampton over the summer. He provides Montpellier with much of their front foot ball, which is key to allowing their backline to fire. He has been an unstoppable force and is the competition’s top-scoring forward with 12, carrying on average 12 times a game. Even when he is stopped, he often manages to get his hands free for the offload, leading to a large amount of space opening up for his teammates outside him. He is also a menace at the breakdown, turning over possession 16 times so far. Babillot and co. have a massive job on their hands but if they can negate the effect of French international in both attack and defence, they almost certainly will win the game.