Thursday 21 September 2017

Hope springs eternal that Noves can be the man to inspire a French revolution

Single-minded coach forging France unity, says David Kelly

France's head coach Guy Noves attends a training session in Nice ahead of the upcoming 6 Nations rugby union match against Ireland. Photo: Valery Hacke/Getty Images
France's head coach Guy Noves attends a training session in Nice ahead of the upcoming 6 Nations rugby union match against Ireland. Photo: Valery Hacke/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

There was a time when Guy Noves craved the lonely life of the athlete.

Good enough to win a French 1,200m title - in a time of 3:16 - he adapted his pace to the ultimate team game of rugby but still found the freedom to flourish on the wide open prairies of the wing.

And when he eventually became the most successful club coach in European rugby, he did so by forging a ruthless individual streak, always standing apart, from his players and officialdom.

His own man. He may have always needed an orchestra but there was little doubt who held the baton.

"In all my time there, I never had a drink with him, not once," recalls former Ireland lock Trevor Brennan, who enjoyed a wonderful autumnal career in a two-time European Cup-winning spell with the French aristocrats. "Perhaps he kept the distance to retain respect."

Brennan's former team-mate, Aidan McCullen, witnessed the maestro's métier at first hand when he signed in 2005.

Orchestra "You won't hear from me much," he told me. "I don't talk much. I'm the conductor of the orchestra. I stand on the sidelines."

He was the same when he first met Brennan; circling him as a breeder inspecting a prospective purchase, before patting him on the stomach, smilingly. "Pas Mal."

Down the years, we would see Noves owlishly prowl the touchlines, crouched as if a beast seeking its prey, cajoling his side with a sweeping gesture of the hands or reacting disdainfully with a Gallic shrug when things, only occasionally, went wrong.

"He's like somebody on a PlayStation," adds McCullen, now an analyst with eir Sport. "He never verbalises, he feels the ebb and flow of the game, seems to know when to bring on and off replacements.

"He calls upon right notes at right time and is an exemplar at using the bench. He has a culture of play. How do you play the game when the game is being played?

"It's almost Barcelona-esque. It's a way of playing, keeping the ball alive, one touch football. It's the rugby equivalent. 'Restez debout'.Play rugby standing up, on your feet."

For one who craves isolation, his vision is the exact opposite, demanding consummate collectiveness.

He still likes to get away, even at 63, disappearing for manic cycle rides, often competitive forays with fellow coaches, undimmed by a startling accident some years back when his racer collided head on with a Mercedes at full tilt.

"Crazy Englishman," was his, perhaps predictable, reaction to the car approaching from the wrong side of the road. To preserve himself, he abandoned his bike to its inevitable mangling by German engineering, flinging himself through the windscreen; half in the car, half out; half dead, half alive.

A day later, he discharged himself from hospital, comforted by the fact that his wife was an anaesthetist; that weekend, a more palliative sedation was available, a European quarter-final in Le Stadium against Cardiff, wherein he once again prowled, in some pain, to watch his team, yet again, find a way to succeed.

He, and they, often always did. Ten titles and four European Cups, straddling several entirely rebuilt teams, followed a playing career which earned him six international caps, ending when he de-selected himself because of injury, a gesture that would be held against him for more than a quarter of a century.

Twice he was denied the top post but, when France could stoop no lower - a horrific humbling, 62-13 2015 World Cup quarter-final shaming by New Zealand and five successive years in the bottom half of the Six Nations table - Noves' time had come. Now 63 - Graham Henry won a World Cup at 64 - there is some optimism.

"There is lots of hope here that he can find the right blend and rediscover some of that former 1980s-style play, a strong pack and gifted backs, as they build towards the next World Cup," says former Ulster and Lions player Jeremy Davidson, head coach of D2 side Aurillac.

"Guy has that crazy mythology, people love or hate him but reckon he will do well. Consistency at half-back is key. They needed the win against Scotland and that will boost them. You will see that in their play this weekend."

In truth, he should have been made French coach before now, definitely in 2007; the feeling now is that, with the Top 14 swimming in millions and clubs dominating country, it may be too late for one man to save Les Bleus from the sad morass they have become.

The early signs have, at least, been encouraging but it is not only a team he must transform, but an entire French culture; politically, he has mellowed, and with former foe Bernard Laporte now a key ally in the Federation, there is some semblance of l'esprit du corps.

Abilities "We have been working on our game, on a brand that fits us and fits our abilities," said Noves after the crucial win against Scotland, following a defeat despite a better performance against England, when his side "lacked character".

"Maybe that is why we dropped so many balls and made mistakes. This might be what gave this negative impression, because apart from the one try, there isn't much to talk about.

"Is it a setback? No. Am I worried? No. I hope we are not moving backwards. We got the win, which I'm pretty sure is not moving backwards. After all we've worked on, talking about a setback after one game is a bit tough to hear. We are not going to change, we are intent on improving in every area.

"We will learn from it, especially before going to Ireland. I am certainly not satisfied with the continuity in our game. Even under Philippe Saint-Andre, there were not as many handling mistakes, so let's not compare.

"His work is cut out for him because so much damage has been done to French rugby by bringing in foreign players," observes McCullen. "The clubs have control and it's almost too late to turn back the tide even though they are slowly trying.

"That's why Toulouse hit a trough, so many overseas players came in and the game became internationalised, South African style one week and all that.

"We never had a defence coach, we didn't need one, and I used to struggle because I was never talented, I preferred a structure like Leinster.

"It's maybe ten years too late. Still, now he has a multitude of coaches - scrum, forwards, defence, mindfulness.

"But he is still the conductor of the orchestra at the end of the day."

One man with the weight of a nation on his wiry shoulders.

Irish Independent

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