Montpellier Hérault Rugby: From Near-Collapse to EU Champions
Montpellier Hérault Rugby is a relatively new team that plies its trade in the highly-rated French League Top 14. The league is the first division of professional rugby union and is home to some of the best players in the world.
Montpellier Hérault Rugby was only formed in 1986 due to the merging of Stade Montpellierain and MUC Rugby. Following the merger, it started playing in France’s second division. However, it didn’t take long for the team to give their fans a taste of success, and Montpellier Hérault Rugby quickly turned into an ambitious team with a reputation for being challenging opponents to play.
Just seven years following the merger and two years after gaining promotion to the first division, Montpellier Hérault Rugby won the Challenge de l’Espérance in 1993, defeating Stade Bordeaux 21-13. It was a pivotal moment for the club. Not only did it give hope to the fans of further success, but it also provided strong evidence that the historic decision to merge the two clubs was correct.
The early success meant you could forgive the high expectations that fans would naturally have of the team. However, while the club held its spot in the elite division respectably, it would experience off-field dramas and multiple relegations before finding a solid foothold in the nation’s elite division.
Every team goes through hardship to succeed, and this case is no exception. After a poor performance in the 1995-96 season, Montpellier Hérault Rugby found itself relegated to the second division. But it managed to reverse its demotion, clawing its way back into the first division by 1997-98.
However, this would not be the end of Montpellier’s dramas, and it soon became the first French team to see its players going on strike. The strike, which kicked off mid-season in December 1997, was due to missed payments to the players resulting from poor decision-making by the club’s President.
The results of the dispute were disastrous for the once-promising club. Nine players left altogether, with those who remained accepting a 30% salary cut. By the end of 1998, it had been relegated two full divisions to amateur competition, albeit with the elites.
While Montpellier Hérault Rugby would spend the coming years in the lower divisions, it would eventually gain its spot back in the first division (known as Top 16 at the time) by the 2002-03 season.
To get there, they first finished the regular season in 2nd position. This set them up to face off against one of the country’s oldest clubs, Football Club Auch Gers, in the semi-final. Montpellier won 28-24 and set up a mouth-watering final against Tarbes Pyrenees, a club that had only been formed in 2000. The men in blue and white were victorious, and Montpellier finally gained its re-entry into the top division.
A major contributor to the club’s return had been the welcoming of Jean Jacques Sauveterre and Thierry Perez to the presidency positions in 1998 as the club bid to turn its fortunes around. Together, the pair laid the key foundations for the club to focus on, hoping this would help bring stability to the finances and set the club goals to help the club return to what it was. The season following the arrival of Perez and Sauveterre’sSauveterre’s, Montpellier was back in Pro D2.
In 2007, the club was proud to have a player selected to the French national squad and represent them on the international stage for the very first time. Fulgence Ouedraogo was the man chosen, with Francois Trinh-Duc, Louis Picamoles, and Julien Tomas all also selected in the following year. The club’s fans gave the four players the adoring nickname “The Fantastic Four.”
With the lure of playing for Montpellier becoming more attractive and more big-name players joining, success in Top 14 has become more consistent, and the club has regularly made the playoffs in the last decade (2011, 2014, 2016, 2018). While not yet having won Top 14, Montpellier has come close on two occasions, making the finals in 2011 and 2018.
However, this is not to say the club has been without any victories. Notably, silverware made its long-awaited return to the club in 2016 and 2021, with wins in the European Rugby Challenge Cup delighting its fans — a stark contrast to where the club was at the start of the 1999 season.