Monday 16 September 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Sonnes helps Toulouse rediscover their identity to bring them back where they belong'

Richie Gray of Toulouse. Photo: Getty
Richie Gray of Toulouse. Photo: Getty
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When a coach of Regis Sonnes' stature turned up in West Cork, the people of Bandon could hardly believe their luck.

It was the summer of 2016 when the former Toulouse flanker arrived in the small town wearing his trademark beret and Crocs.

Rugby in West Cork had been slowly on the up, but the impact that Sonnes had on accelerating that process cannot be stressed enough, while the foundations he put in place before he returned to France last year will be felt for some time to come yet.

In recent years, the likes of Darren Sweetnam, Fineen Wycherley, his younger brother Josh, who just played a key role in the Ireland U-20s' Grand Slam success, as well as cousins Gavin Coombes and Liam Coombes have emerged from an area that is usually more renowned for GAA.

Three years on since Sonnes worked wonders with Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar, he finds himself in more familiar surrounds as Toulouse's forwards coach.

Shortage

There was no shortage of offers before he arrived for his stint in Ireland, but at the time, he felt he needed to recharge the batteries and take a step back from working in the demanding professional game after his time with Bordeaux.

Along with fellow former Toulouse players Ugo Mola, William Servat and Clement Poitrenaud, the club have rediscovered their identify and are now back where they belong - competing for Heineken Cups.

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Some of the thrilling, free-flowing rugby that Toulouse have played this season has been an absolute joy to watch, but it is the hard edge that Sonnes has brought to the pack that has allowed the flair players to thrive.

In years gone by, the laissez-faire attitude of the French has meant that training methods haven't always been at the required level, which is where Sonnes has come in and shaken things up.

"He has been great, I have got a very good relationship with Regis," Scotland lock Richie Gray says.

"I know he was over in Ireland for a couple of years plying his trade. He talks about the weather a lot over in Ireland! He's happy to be back.

"He has been great. He's a hard coach but he is a fair coach. He has got us working very hard as a forward pack. There is a huge amount of respect for him. He is a good guy all round and a good trainer. He has had a very positive impact on the team.

"He has his plan. He likes to drill things. He really likes repetitions.

"We do a lot of work on our mauls, which have improved massively this year. We have done a lot of work on our repetitions and lineouts, which has helped a lot as well.

"And also there is a good dialogue. As a lineout group, we will sit down with him a lot. We will speak at length and just go back and forth with ideas. He really does leave no stone unturned and he's very thorough with his work."

Toulouse will return to Dublin on Sunday looking to right the wrongs of their defeat to Leinster in the capital during the pool stages back in January.

The race for a record fifth title is on and now that Toulouse feel like they are edging closer to the team that once dominated Europe, they are an increasingly dangerous threat for Leinster.

"Obviously there is a huge amount of young guys coming through and some good signings," Gray (below) maintains.

"You've got the young guys, who have won the U-20 World Cup. They have a huge amount of confidence and experience from that.

Fear

"They've not got much fear. They just want to go out and play rugby, which is a great way to be.

"There is a lot of good work being done at the top. But Regis has had a very positive impact. There is no denying that."

Toulouse's policy of bringing through exciting young players such as Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and the outstanding Antoine Dupont has been coupled with some shrewd overseas signings.

The likes of former All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina will grab most of the headlines in that regard, but Gray has also been an excellent addition.

The former Lions tourist won the last of his 65 caps for Scotland in last year's Six Nations and has only recently fully recovered from the hip injury that kept him out since.

Now back in the fold, he is eager to catch the eye ahead of the World Cup and going up against a formidable side like Leinster, Gray knows he won't get a better chance to do so.

"Obviously it's a huge challenge, going to the Aviva Stadium and playing arguably the best team in Europe at this moment in time, and over the past few seasons.

"We'll have to be at the very best of our game."

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