Brunel planting seeds of success
Published 24/02/2012 | 05:00
When the studious and meticulous Italian coach Jacques Brunel is afforded a rare moment of solitude, he likes to flip open a book of Gerard de Nerval's poetry.
One of France's most quintessentially romantic poets, it is fitting that the 19th century writer has become Brunel's most beloved retreat. After all, both men share similarly idealistic notions.
Throughout his career, this thoughtful 58-year-old has managed to inculcate remarkable transformations in erstwhile dormant institutions, particularly in France, while his pedigree at the highest level of the sport is internationally well-established.
Brunel's first significant impact as a coach brought him to this country in 1999, when the modest Colomiers outfit he had led to European Challenge Cup success a year earlier travelled to Dublin for the Heineken Cup final.
Where other French challenges had fallen in that year of non-English involvement, Ulster and Colomiers lasted the pace but the French were no match for Simon Mason's boot on a remarkable day at Lansdowne Road. Then Brunel went to Pau and brought them into Europe also.
Meanwhile, his achievements were recognised by the French Federation, whom he joined as forwards coach for six years under Bernard Laporte, between 2001 and '07 and spanning two World Cup semi-finals, four Six Nations titles and two Grand Slams.
His vaulting ambition for Italy -- to become leading contenders in Europe within three years -- may be propelled by a romantic philosophy of attacking rugby that is foreign to Italians, but his foundations will remain solidly rooted in the formidable reality of forward power that ensures Italy's status as one of the most dogged combatants in European rugby.
In Dublin, they normally provide the perfect antidote to insomnia so it will be interesting to see how elaborately Brunel will alter his playbook; although his choice of playmaker Tobias Botes at out-half offers an enlightened clue.
"We want to play in a different way (to the past) and to have different ambitions," Brunel insists.
"You need a team that is dangerous in every department, so, effectively, it's fair to say that right now the team is a little unbalanced.
"We have forwards who are able to compete with the best, but behind them there is still room for improvement to be able to impose ourselves or have the strength in the backs to perform to the highest level.
"So we're going to try to rebalance the team, to implement a sense of spirit, to create freedom, to give a free hand to this three-quarter line so that they develop self-confidence."
Born in Courrensan in south-west France, Brunel's playing career was relatively undistinguished, featuring for Grenoble and Carcassonne before joining Auch, where he spent 19 years, finishing the last 12 years of his playing days there before assuming the head coach role.
Much of his philosophy was honed here, before leaving to join Colomiers in 1995, the neat symmetry of that year's Paris Accord partitioning his amateur and professional rugby careers.
Before replacing Nick Mallett as Italian head coach last year, Brunel had enjoyed notable success with the proud Perpignan club, leading them to a cherished Top 14 success in 2008 and a Heineken Cup semi-final last season, where they lost to Northampton Saints.
Italy's status as perennial whipping boys wasn't going to be altered overnight, though, and two opening defeats in this year's championship indicates the magnitude of the task facing him.
Minus both his starting front-row lynchpins -- Andrea lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni -- not to mention the Bergamasco brothers, with swirling talk that he has fallen out with one or both of them, few are backing Italy to reverse the tide of this century and defeat Ireland tomorrow.
However, with Ireland experiencing the jitters like never before and perhaps particularly vulnerable at an unfamiliar kick-off in a venue that has become more foreign than fortress, Declan Kidney's view of Brunel's transforming influence demands scrutiny.
"I think he's brought a confidence to them to play with the ball in hand," says the Ireland head coach.
"Okay, they have enormous physical strength and that's why we've always talked about Italy as being one of, if not the most physical matches of the season.
"He's told them to use that in terms of their skills and so they have now started to put the ball from side to side and put you under a bit of pressure.
"That's a contrast to before, when they would kick the ball more, which in turn would give you more opportunities to counter-attack and keep the ball more and force their defence to act and put in a few more tackles.
"Now they're asking more questions of our defence and we just need to stay solid in that.
"I think he'll build on the attributes that they do have. And it is very thin lines. If you look at that match they played against England, they were 15-6 up and they were coasting really. Then a blocked-down kick suddenly changed the whole course of the game."
Despite the results, the players are responding to Brunel's methods and style -- two training sessions a day, separated by a video session, is a change from the norm, and there has been a noticeable shift in emphasis from Mallett's tenure, with attack featuring more than defence.
"We need to eliminate the defects in our game and the points we give away, and I'm not just talking about the counter-attacks," Brunel said this week.
"Three times we made a mistake against England and that was three points every time which we could avoid because they weren't dangerous situations.
"We're giving points away too easily and if we can eliminate that and be more effective in getting points with the boot then we will have the ability to get results. That's our first objective."
De Nerval once wrote, "Every flower is a soul blossoming in nature."
It might take Brunel's men some time to bloom.