Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Ulster get an easy ride Montpellier to field a weakened team at Ravenhill: Davidson

Jeremy Davidson
Jeremy Davidson

Former Ulster player and coach Jeremy Davidson has given his native province the thumbs up ahead of tomorrow night's must-win Heineken Cup match against Montpellier at Ravenhill (8pm).

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph from his home in south-central France, the 39-year-old, who nowadays is second division Aurillac's head coach, revealed that Montpellier will send a reserve side to Belfast.

"They have said in the press this week that they are resting Jim Hamilton and Mamuka Gordgodze. Those are two of their main players who are being given a full week's rest and won't be travelling to Ulster," said Davidson (right).

"Last week and again this week they have said that they will be putting out their second team to give squad players a run since they have no ambitions in Europe any more. So it looks very favourable for Ulster."

Davidson, whose British and Irish Lions team-mates chose him as the Players' Player of the 1997 tour of South Africa, had no hesitation in tipping Ulster to win and then head to Leicester for next weekend's showdown with the Tigers at Welford Road buoyed up by a perfect played five, won five record and, as a result, in pole position for a home quarter-final tie in April.

His view of the match: "By all accounts this is going to be a side made up of guys who haven't played much rugby together on a regular basis this season, so if Ulster are patient and play with the intensity, they can in building an innings it should be an easy victory."

A tall order for French

Jeremy Davidson probably knows as much about French rugby, culture and mindsets as any Ulsterman ever has.

Of the 21 years since he celebrated his 18th birthday, nine have been spent living in France. Fluent in the language and at home with the rural customs of the Auvergne region in south-central France, he loves the country, the people and their way of life.

As a result of living and working in France as Second Division Aurillac's head coach – he also played for Castres for three years and coached them for two before taking up a job as Ulster's forwards guru and then going back across the Channel once more in 2011 – he is able to keep close tabs on who is doing what in rugby.

And the message from his home 350 miles from Paris and 140 from Toulouse is that Montpellier have stated publicly that, for them, the Heineken Cup is over as a result of home defeats by Ulster and Leicester Tigers, with a Welford Road reversal wedged in between.

"It's like a French team going to Ravenhill in the 1990s and noughties when they really didn't expect to win over there. Ulster are such a good side from one to 23 that Montpellier really don't expect to beat them in Belfast," he said.

"Ulster won in Montpellier, which was an amazing performance. I'm not sure if people at home fully appreciate just how good a result that was.

"They have already said in the press this week that they are resting Jim Hamilton and Mamuka Gordgodze. Those are two of their main players who are being given a full week's rest and won't be travelling to Ulster."

Scottish international lock Hamilton is 6ft 8ins and one pound light of 20 stone. Georgian international flanker Gordgodze is 6ft 5ins and 18st 8lbs. That's a lot of height and weight to be leaving at home.

"Last week and again this week in the French press they have said that they will be putting out their second team to give squad players a run since they have no ambitions in Europe any more. So it looks very favourable for Ulster," Davidson (pictured) said.

However he was quick to add: "That said, Montpellier have a bigger budget than any Celtic League team and their reserve players are of a very, very high standard. They're not going to want to let themselves down."

As for how he sees the match going, the former Dungannon, Ulster, Ireland and Lions lock said: "I would imagine Ulster will get on top early doors and put some points on the board using their kicking game as they did in Montpellier to get field position.

"I think they'll soften the aggressive defence which Montpellier have and thereafter, with the skill level and intensity they can bring, Ulster will break loose in the second half.

"Ulster can play with a higher intensity than Montpellier can live with and I think you'll see that after half-time. But I think the key in the first half is just to play safe, use their kicking game to play in the Montpellier half, build their innings and create that seed of doubt in Montpellier's minds.

"By all accounts this is going to be a side made up of guys who haven't played that much rugby together on a regular basis this season, so if Ulster are patient and play with the intensity they can in building an innings it should be an easy victory. If they do those things, they should get their just rewards."

For years French club sides fared badly when required to travel in the Heineken Cup. Indeed, the tradition in French domestic rugby is for visiting sides to lose.

But the situation has evolved and Davidson's take on that was: "It has changed and nowadays we do see French sides going away from home and winning in the European Cup in the past few years.

"Professionalism in rugby has brought a more clinical edge.

"But over here, up until a couple of years ago, it was unheard of for even the big teams to win on a regular basis away from home.

"A lot of that came down to the pride and the passion of playing in front of your home supporters who really got behind the team. You really didn't want to lose when you were at home and you really didn't expect to win when you were playing away.

"That's just the way it was and, to a certain extent, still is.

"And, to a smaller extent, the refereeing sometimes was, shall we say, dubious in view of the crowd's vocal nature!

"Nowadays, though, professional rugby has brought that more clinical edge to French teams, notably the big teams like Clermont, Toulouse and Montpellier.

"But even so, when you go to a club like Montpellier, who are out of the European Cup, you will find that they still are likely to send a second-string side. So do they resort back to type this weekend? Yes, I think you'll find they will.

"They will have no aspirations at all about winning this match against Ulster."

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