The European Rugby Champions Cup is now reaching the final stages for this season, with only eight teams remaining in the competition. Whilst the clash of English Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers and United Rugby Championship frontrunners Leinster was undoubtedly the tie of the round, there was also the small matter of an all-French affair between the team currently at the summit of the Top 14, Montpellier, and the side who lost to Stade Toulousain (Toulouse) in last year’s Champions Cup, Stade Rochelais (La Rochelle).
Both sides would have felt that they had a good chance of winning this game, but both also knew that it would not be easy to do so, and this tactical analysis will look at their tactics and game plans to pick out the reasons why La Rochelle were the ones who took the victory.
La Rochelle made five changes from their previous game, an away league defeat to an inconsistent Toulouse. Loosehead prop Reda Wardi, lock Romain Sazy, back rower Matthias Haddad and versatile back Arthur Retiere moved to the bench, whilst Brice Dulin was left out. Dany Priso came into the front row, whilst Thomas Lavault partnered Remi Picquette behind them and Victor Vito was named at flanker. The other changes saw Tawera Kerr-Barlow partner fellow New Zealander Ihaia West at half-back, Jules Favre named on the wing, and Jeremy Sinzelle originally start at full-back. However, a last minute injury to France centre Jonathan Danty meant that Sinzelle instead kept his place in the midfield, with Dillyn Leyds coming back in after originally being a replacement.
Montpellier were also on the road last weekend, suffering a defeat at Lyon, and made a whole host of alterations to their starting XV for this game. Out went the entire front row of Titi Lamositele, France’s Mohamed Haouas (who had been sent off in that game) and Jeremie Maurouard, back rowers Alexandre Becognee and Marco Tauleigne, centre Geoffrey Doumayrou and full-back Anthony Bouthier, whilst France lock Paul Willemse’s season is over after an injury suffered in the game at Lyon and Thomas Darbon was on the bench. Into the front row came Enzo Forletta and former Bath player Henry Thomas, whilst ex-France captain Guilhem Guirado started between them at hooker. Willemse’s absence was covered by Bastien Charlureau, whilst captain Yacouba Camara was joined by Fulgence Ouedraogo and another former Bath player, number 8 Zach Mercer, in the back row. Benoit Paillaugue had a new half-back partner in Louis Foursans, with Leicester-bound South Africa international Handre Pollard moving to centre and playing alongside Yvan Reilhac, whilst the final alteration saw another France international, Vincent Rattez, start on the wing, with Julien Tisseron switching to full-back.
La Rochelle’s passing
A key reason for La Rochelle’s win in this game was their passing, as they played at a good tempo and didn’t allow Montpellier to get too tight to them. They also had a good awareness of where each other was, meaning that they could move the ball around with a good level of accuracy and constantly create opportunities to score tries.
Whilst playing at a high intensity is essential, it needs to be matched by good handling skills, and this was something that La Rochelle had a lot of. In this case, Dillyn Leyds, who was one of La Rochelle’s most dangerous players in the first half, has passed the ball to winger Raymond Rhule on the far side of the pitch, with the South African in open space and with a route ahead of him to gain territory through. However, whilst the pass into Rhule goes slightly behind him, forcing the catch to be made whilst stationery, we can still see how La Rochelle’s players kept the ball moving and constantly tried to create opportunities.
However, with Montpellier defending so well, simply passing along the lines wouldn’t lead to anything. As a result, La Rochelle also looked to change the direction of play when in possession, making it harder for their opponents to keep their organised setup and forcing gaps to open up which they could exploit.
In this case, France tighthead Uini Atonio has passed to Ihaia West behind him, with Louis Foursans being drawn towards the prop in his attempts to close the ball down, but opening the gap between him and Paillaugue, as shown by the orange line.
This was what La Rochelle wanted to happen, with West now able to send Fiji centre Levani Botia through the space, and this eventually leads to Victor Vito scoring La Rochelle’s second try of the game. Therefore, again, we can see how La Rochelle’s passing abilities were key to them controlling large parts of this game.
La Rochelle’s second half control
However, in the second half, the home side started on the back foot, with Montpellier showing why they can’t be counted out and scoring two early tries, and this meant that last season’s finalists needed to fight hard to re-establish their control of proceedings.
What La Rochelle needed to do was regain their pinpoint passing and ability to gain territory with powerful carries, and this situation shows the build-up to another of their attacks which almost led to a try.
What made the difference here was that Remi Picquette picked the ball up and went forwards himself, rather than passing to a teammate on either side and risking his team being pushed backwards, and substitute loosehead Reda Wardi managed to get the ball over the line only a few phases after this, although an accidental offside meant that the try was correctly ruled out.
However, when we are looking for the reasons for the home side taking the win despite being second best after the break, this raw determination is undoubtedly one of them.
Both sides showed had good offensive and defensive play in the second half, meaning that the game as a whole was quite evenly matched. However, what perhaps edged the game in La Rochelle’s favour was the individual performance of West when compared to his opposite number Foursans, as the New Zealander was more involved in open play and looked to exert his creative influence as often as possible.
Here, his dummied pass towards Leyds has caught Vincent Rattez out, again drawing him out of position, whilst several sharp movements after this meant that Yvan Reilhac and substitutes Kelian Galletier and Mickael Capelli all failed to make a clean tackle on him. Whilst he was eventually brought down, this shows how he posed a significant individual threat to Montpellier, and was someone that they at times couldn’t deal with.
Another who played an essential role in La Rochelle’s second half re-emergence was Wardi, not only through his hard work in attacking situations, but also because he was strong when the team didn’t have possession and showed good decision-making to make tackles and win the ball back for his team. In this case, he has stolen the ball legally from Montpellier replacement Masivesi Dakuwaqa, setting up a counter-attack for his side, and it is fair to say that his introduction coincided with La Rochelle’s resurgence and ability to go on and secure a place in the semi-finals.
We have looked a lot at La Rochelle in this analysis, but Montpellier were always going to be tough opponents for them, given that they currently lead the Top 14 table, and they also had a clear game plan that revolved around clever play in different areas of the match.
Much like their opponents, Montpellier were constantly looking to change the direction of play and force gaps to open in their defensive line, but the difference was that they created space through their link-up play, rather than simply altering the way they passed the ball. Here, Paillaugue, who was at the heart of a lot of their good play throughout, has received the ball from lock Florian Verhaeghe almost without breaking stride, before instantly sending it towards Gabriel N’Gandebe. The winger has a gap ahead of him and the natural pace to breach it, and this move and ability to see and then use space around the field is a clear indication of why Montpellier have been the best team in French domestic rugby this season.
However, what was evident about the away side’s tactics in this game was that they were relying a lot on kicking the ball up the field and putting aerial pressure on La Rochelle, with Paillaugue again instrumental in this by kicking forwards from the back of rucks. Here, he puts the ball into an area behind La Rochelle’s players, forcing them to keep running back towards their own try line, and this was a constant feature of their play in both halves as they looked to make territorial gains and keep La Rochelle on the back foot.
The reason that Montpellier looked to put the ball in the air was because La Rochelle were guilty of making mistakes in their attempts to gather it, with this situation showing one time when an error cost them. The kick from Julien Tisseron has gone high into the air, but hasn’t travelled a great distance, and the reason for that is that Tisseron wants to get underneath it and then launch an attack. However, he is helped out by La Rochelle hooker Pierre Bourgarit, who held his position, and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who ran into his teammate, and this lack of communication meant that the ball went loose and Yvan Reilhac was able to pick the ball up and run through for a very easy try.
We have mentioned how La Rochelle started the second half poorly, and this was one situation that highlighted that point. Against other teams, they might have got away with a situation like this, but Montpellier have the tactical awareness to create opportunities and players who can punish mistakes made by their opponents, and this is why they can’t be counted out of any game, even when they look to be second best.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between La Rochelle and Montpellier, finding the reasons why La Rochelle managed to take another step towards a second successive European final. Head coach Ronan O’Gara would have been happy with their overall effort in the game, but what he would have been most pleased about was the impact that their replacements had, with Wardi in particular giving his team a boost in the second half and adding power going forwards.
Montpellier, meanwhile, would have been disappointed with some of their play and know that they were not at their best, and it was a shame given that this was the last opportunity for some of their squad to play in the European competitions. However, they do have other things to focus on still, including competing for the Top 14 title, so their season could still end on a high note.
La Rochelle’s win here means that they will be back in action on Sunday, when the travel to another French team, Racing 92, for their semi-final match. Montpellier, meanwhile, will be back in action when the Top 14 resumes the following weekend, when they will also face Racing, although they will be at home.