CASTRES, FRANCE – It is finally official. Win or lose – and it will come as no surprise to anyone to read that the French are emphatic-Gallic-shoulder-shrug-level resigned to lose – the Philippe Saint-Andre
error era will come to an end after the Rugby World Cup.
The news that most self-respecting rugby fans in France have been expecting / anticipating / hoping for / praying for (delete as applicable) for months was confirmed on Friday, when legendary international fullback-turned-self-appointed-French rugby-saviour Serge Blanco told Canal+ Les Specialistes that PSA’s successor would be announced in May.
Whoever does take over as France coach will have a big job on their hands – bigger even than PSA had when he took over from Marc Lievremont on December 1, 2011, with a big promise to restore pride in French rugby.
When he took over, Saint-Andre told Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “The players must accept that the France team is the window to French rugby and the image and message we send is important. Many youngsters take up the game because of what they see in the team … and we must make sure this image is always good.”
By any standard – most tellingly the one set by his own pledge – the past three-and-a-bit years have not gone well. Another fourth place finish in this year’s RBS 6 Nations put the tin-lid on France’s worst run of tournament finishes in the professional era – fourth, sixth, fourth, fourth.
His record – 15 wins in 37 matches – is also the of any French coach. Ever. Those two facts make a mockery of his claims at a post-6 Nations press conference held 24 hours after the Twickenham tryfest that France “…are not far behind the best teams in the world.”
Speaking before the final round of the RBS 6 Nations, Saint-Andre had been non-committal about his future: “Afterwards, there will be a period of preparation for the World Cup and I will have time to fully consider my future after that,” he said.
The truth was then that he was was heavily in debt to borrowed time – and had been for some while.
The task of choosing the next great French coaching hope is in the hands of a committee of seven members, chaired by Pierre Camou and composed of Jo Maso, Jean-Claude Skrela, Didier Retière, Jean-Pierre Lux, Blanco and John Dunyach.
The already criminally short odds shortened further on Bordeaux’s Raphaël Ibañez landing the job when Blanco revealed on Les Specialistes that he would contact him to discuss the role – but he then mentioned two more coaches with Top 14 experience who, he said, “had the skills” for the job.
They were former Montpellier coach Fabien Galthie and Toulouse boss Guy Noves. Seriously.
A fourth coach who had been linked to the job in some circles prior to Friday’s pronouncement, Grenoble’s Frabrice Landreau, quickly issued a statement saying that he was happy to remain where he was. He’s a terrific coach and has worked wonders at Grenoble with Bernard Jackman, but in truth, he was probably only ever an outside only-if-everyone-else-says-no shot.
Following his well-publicised fall from grace at Montpellier, former strong favourite Galthie has surely dropped down the pecking order, despite being among the names cited by Blanco. According to some reports, he is not hugely popular with the powers-that-be, including the shadowy suits of the influential French Barbarian Rugby Club.
Galthie’s future could well still lie in international rugby. Argentina are reportedly interested in him, and he has been linked to the soon-to-be-vacant Italian job. Jacques Brunel’s contract is up after the World Cup, and Galthie’s name is in the frame for the hotseat. As is, still, Harlequins’ boss Conor O’Shea. Admittedly, O’Shea has told anyone who will listen that he has had no contact in the powers-that-be in Italian rugby, but the rumour just will not go away.
The gnomic Noves, who cited “family reasons” when he turned down the job in 2011 and has since presided over the decline and fall of the Toulouse empire, must be the least desirable choice and probably only makes the triumvirate because of his close links with the old farts at the FFR.
The 61-year-old has insisted no one has contacted him about it, but admitted on RMC Sport radio that he may consider taking the job more carefully than he did four years ago.
In 2011, he may have been the man for the job. Then, he said no. Now, he is definitely not. And he has hinted that he may say yes. It should be inconceivable that he is even being mentioned. That it is not offers an insight into the conservative minds that run French rugby. They make the Tea Party look like an anarcho-sect of drugged-up lefty-leaning wastrels.
Fortunately for anyone with even a passing interest in rugby, Ibanez is the big favourite. By some considerable margin.
He also has not said publicly said no to the job. In fact, publicly, he has said nothing. He was on punditry duty for broadcaster France 2 at the England v France tryfest. Before the match, the camera cut to a group of French fans holding up a banner that read: “Raph, we’re waiting for you.”
Cue a few seconds of light-hearted questions about his future, during which the likable former French international smiled coyly and neatly deflected all the brickbats thrown his way.
And he has since admitted that being offered the job would be an honour. But he, too, has said he has not been in contact with the FFR, and has more pressing Bordeaux-related matters on his mind – not least reversing the slide out of play-off contention.
Regardless, he is the fans’ favourite. He is the rugby media’s favourite. About the only person who is not publicly impressed by all the speculation is club president Laurent Marti.
Before Friday’s announcement, Marti publicly said: “We must be serious. Raph (Ibanez) has had no contact (with the FFR). I have had no contact. We must stop wasting time on this.”
Marti aside, the only question that matters is unfortunately the important one: is Ibanez the FFR’s favourite? Blanco’s comments suggest he could well be.
The media are so convinced that Ibanez is the man to do what Saint-Andre said he would in 2011 that they are already speculating about who he will want on his staff.
Two of his lieutenants at Bordeaux – Joe Worsley and Ludovic Loustau – are on the list. They are as responsible as the boss for the exciting times at Stade Chaban-Delmas. Ibanez knows and trusts them. They work well as a team.
But the Racing Metro coaching duo of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit have also been mentioned. It has been suggested that the Lolos would be prepared to work under Ibanez if the FFR is willing to set up a coaching model similar to that of New Zealand or Wales.
It would mean they have a much greater say in day-to-day affairs, training and planning than PSA’s staff of Yannick Bru and Patrice Lagisquet.
Two further questions remain. What’s next for Saint-Andre? And who should take over at Bordeaux (on the widely assumption that Ibanez will, as expected, take the France job)?
The word on the rugby street is that PSA is among the names on the list to take over the Oyonnax-bound Olivier Azam’s hotseat at Lyon, where he would work alongside new forwards coach Sebastian Bruno and his old mucker at Gloucester, Dave Ellis.
Another name linked to the Lyon job, the heart-on-his-sleeve backs coach at Bordeaux, Vincent Etcheto has scotched speculation about his future. He is, he says, happy to stay at Bordeaux.
Meanwhile, Bordeaux president Marti has, it would appear, been putting out a few feelers just in case Ibanez does head to the training grounds at Marcoussis. Three names are reportedly on his list: the duo of Yannick Bru and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, who helped Noves guide Toulouse to two Top 14 titles in 2011 and 2012; and Vern Cotter.
The Scotland coach has insisted his immediate future remains in Edinburgh, but it is understood he may change his mind for another chance to coach in the Top 14. He certainly has the credentials that Marti would be looking for. Even if this option turns out to be more than just speculation, Cotter would not be available before the end of the World Cup – which throws open yet more questions.
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