Catrakilis kicks on

Demetri Catrakilis has made the most of his opportunity with Montpellier, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Life and rugby in France appear to agree with Demetri Catrakilis. Based in the scenic seaside city of Montpellier, the 26-year-old has found a happy balance on and off the field, and begun to produce some of the best rugby of his career.

Having won first rights to the No 10 jersey at Montpellier, Catrakilis has played a leading role as the French club has once again emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Top 14, while securing their first European title with victory in the Challenge Cup.

Playing alongside a clutch of fellow Saffas such as Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Pierre Spies and Frans Steyn, there was a distinct Mzansi flavour to Montpellier’s European campaign. And as the man marshalling proceedings at flyhalf, Catrakilis has proven to be another astute South African signing by Jake White, Montpellier’s coach.

‘It was an amazing opportunity to join Montpellier last year and it’s proved to be a rewarding experience,’ Catrakilis tells SA Rugby magazine just days after producing a flawless goal-kicking performance that saw him contribute 16 points in the Challenge Cup final against Harlequins.

‘It’s a different experience to Super Rugby; there are a lot of players of different nationalities coming together, but it’s really been beneficial to play alongside international players and some top Springboks. It’s added to my confidence to have guys like Frans, Pierre, Bismarck and Jannie around me. I’m enjoying my rugby, and the lifestyle in Montpellier, where the weather’s generally great and the nearby beaches are beautiful.’

Catrakilis is certainly not the only player who seems to have found a new lease on life in France. Indeed, there have also been rave reviews about the performances of Spies, Steyn and the Du Plessis brothers, while talented youngsters Paul Willemse and Jacques du Plessis have formed a formidable second-row combination.

It’s clear that a winning culture has been created at Montpellier, with White bringing a decisive vision to the French club since taking up the top job at the end of 2014. Before the 2015-16 season, the former Springbok coach went on a recruitment drive and snapped up 11 new players, including Catrakilis, who had been identified as the sort of flyhalf who could add immense value to the squad.

Although Catrakilis had been expected to serve as the backup flyhalf to Frenchman Francois Trinh-Duc, his composure under pressure, strong distribution and deadeye goal-kicking has seen him emerge as Montpellier’s first-choice pivot.

By the end of May, Catrakilis had played in 13 Top 14 games (starting in 11), with a goal-kicking success rate of 85%, while in seven Challenge Cup clashes (which saw him start in five), he boasted a percentage of 88.

It again served to highlight a strength of Catrakilis’s game that White has always championed as a coach. Incredibly, his six-from-six strike rate in the Challenge Cup final saw him maintain a remarkable goal-kicking success rate of 100% in every final he’s played.

This has included a Varsity Cup final (playing for the UCT Ikey Tigers), a Vodacom Cup final and two Currie Cup finals (all for Western Province). In the 2015 Super Rugby season, he also emerged as the joint all-time record holder for most successful consecutive goal kicks (28).

‘I’ve always prided myself on my goal-kicking, and put a lot of practice into it,’ Catrakilis says. ‘Besides on-field training, visualisation helps. Goal-kicking is a big thing for me. When a player gets judged, it’s often just an opinion, but goal-kicking stats are one part of the game where you can have a factual reflection of that aspect of your game. No one can argue with that.’

There is no doubt Catrakilis’s accuracy in front of posts has been a key factor in Montpellier’s resurgence over the past year. Yet despite re-establishing a formidable presence in European rugby, Montpellier have at times drawn criticism from the  French public for employing a pragmatic (some would say South African) style of play that has produced winning results, but not necessarily the most eye-catching brand of rugby.

However, Catrakilis believes Montpellier are evolving to the point where they can adapt their on-field approach according to the opposition and the match circumstances.

‘Jake is really good at identifying our strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses. So you’ll see we change game plans quite often and play according to the situation and the way we think we can win.

‘One game you may see us scoring a whole lot of tries, and then the next we might kick five penalties with no tries and win the game. We can play different styles, and it depends on what the weather or opposition brings to the game.

‘In that regard, Jake’s a very intelligent coach and he knows how to win,’ Catrakilis adds. ‘He gives you clear direction in terms of what you need to do during the week and I think the team has that direction. He’s a quality coach who knows how to read the game, and he really knows how to bring the best out of the players to implement his game plan. That’s his strength as a coach.’

With Catrakilis proving to be a vital cog in the running of the well-oiled Montpellier machine, the former Stormers pivot has once again been spoken of as a potential Bok contender.

‘Of course it’s always been a dream of mine to represent my country,’ he says. ‘I spent a few years playing under Allister [Coetzee] at Western Province and the Stormers, and I really enjoyed him as a person and coach. It would be great if I got the opportunity to work with him again.’

For now, Catrakilis is simply looking to make the most of his time in France, but one can’t help but feel that if he continues to produce match-winning performances for Montpellier, that opportunity may come sooner rather than later …

– This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Craig Lewis