Monday 21 January 2019

From Toulouse to Bandon, adventurer Sonnes has taken the road less travelled

Toulouse coach Regis Sonnes made a big impact when he was at Bandon and he will be hoping his team can do the same thing against Leinster today. Photo: Getty Images
Toulouse coach Regis Sonnes made a big impact when he was at Bandon and he will be hoping his team can do the same thing against Leinster today. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Corkness has been reported missing this week. And so investigations surrounding its disappearance bring us, naturally, to the south of France.

Thursday morning in the neatly apportioned office of Toulouse head coach Régis Sonnes; the Frenchman raises a metaphorical eyebrow as he is related the teary-eyed tale from an Irish county's unrequited quest for a sense of self.

"Really? That intrigues me," says a man who seems to spend his life not just being intrigued about people and life, but who seeks to find out the reasons why.

"I don't think they should be worried about what this Corkness is but what is it that they seek within to find the best of themselves, in whatever they do in life.

"It is about having a spirit, a humanity, a desire to be the best, to wear your heart on your sleeve and fight as hard as you can for what you believe in, together. A culture of wanting to fight for the last inch. It is a calling. Once you have this common desire, you can achieve anything, however small you are, however big you dream."

Perhaps they should have sent Frank Murphy to Bandon.

* * * * *

There will be a mini-bus leaving West Cork at morning's dawn, bound for a corner of the RDS in Dublin, where a vocal minority will support Toulouse against Leinster, not because they are of Munster, but because Sonnes was once of Munster himself.

The place will never forget the man and the man will never forget the place.

"I only have happy memories from my time there," says the 46-year-old, temporarily interrupting plans to charge the Dublin fortress of the European champions to reminisce on a life less ordinary and roads less travelled.

His paths have always seemed to take him as far away as possible but, to his mind, they have always led back to a greater sense of himself and his sport.

It is a thirst for self-discovery that has always resided within his bones, since the decision in the early days of professionalism to leave Toulouse, despite their French title win, in order to spend a year surfing the waves in LA and Mexico.

"Everybody takes a break some times," he reasons. "In my life, I just decided to take a break many times."

It would be a mistake to confuse his wanderlust with a diffident attitude to commitment; wherever he has laid his beret, his loyalty has been consummate, as Bandon can most recently aver.

His only regret is that he didn't sign off last summer with a promotion to the senior grade of rugby; they were beaten in the decider 24-17 by Bruff; but his influence has been far-reaching nonetheless.

They won their first Junior Division 1 league title since 1993 during his time there, backing up a Munster Junior Cup title win a year earlier, the first in their 135-year existence. Bandon did complete a treble before Sonnes departed; beating Skerries in an U-18 national final as well as provincial U-16 Plate and Bowl finals.

His role was not limited to the club; for the first time in their history, Bandon Grammar School also reached a Schools Cup semi-final in 2017.

West Cork, long a hot-bed of GAA, particularly football, has recently emerged as a breeding ground for the oval game with Munster and Ireland wing Darren Sweetnam, once a hurler, the most notable code-switcher. Sonnes appreciated first-hand the benefits of hurling and Gaelic Football to the development of rugby athletes during his two-year stint.

"I loved the fact that they were sports in which you could at the same time as expressing your skill and creativity, you could also display fight and character. For me, that can be applied to anything.

"I could see how the underage players especially in the school were able to develop different elements of their physique and skills once they played a number of sports.

"It made it easier for them to play one sport when they had to make that decision. Kids should not be restricted, they need freedom."

That spirit of liberation infuses him and rejects captivity, remains eternally restless.

When he returned from his surfing sojourn in the mid-1990s, the back-rower immediately integrated into the professional game at the highest level with Brive, beaten European finalists in 1998.

He just as immediately about-turned. Next, his inquisitive mind alighted upon a project with some colleagues, founding the Real Soldevilla club in the small French village of Campet-et-Lamolère.

Naturally, they soon drew some success from Sonnes' sprinkling of inspiration. And then, via Agen and Narbonne, to Spain, first the Canoe Rugby Club Madrid before helming the national side for four years.

His appointment at Bordeaux reflected the obvious impression that not only had he helped develop every project he turned his hand to but that every project had improved him too. But, although he is now at one of the most successful clubs in world rugby, the motivation has never been career-driven but personal.

Why else swap Bordeaux for Bandon? He views it simply. It wasn't about the place but the job.

"I see rugby as a tool you have in my life and I just want to use it wherever it can do some good work," he says. "And so when I got the call from Bandon, I realised that they needed something and I realised that I could use that tool to help them. I am always changing in my life.

"And humans are the same wherever you are and as long as they are willing to learn, and I feel willing to teach, then it doesn't matter where you go in the world. Because teachers should always be the same too.

"And so being in the south of Ireland for me was just the same as being in the south of France or being in any other country.

"I could go surfing at Inchydoney and I could enjoy the Guinness because it is better there. And I could enjoy the people, such warm human beings.

"And with the schools team, there is always the excitement at developing players who are maybe not at the same maturity as professionals, and seeing them develop.

"But you still want to have the same spirit in the game, to enjoy it and play the game in the right manner, so that everyone can enjoy it."

Despite being in his mid-40s, he looks and feels so much younger thanks to the regular refreshment in his way of life.

"I enjoy the breaks, coaching with teams who are only doing it for love and not for the money.

"And being at Bandon helps you. There are only two training sessions a week so you have to stream-line your training to get as much knowledge across in a limited time.

"So when you are back in the professional game, you can carry those principles with you and be sharp in your training, to the point.

"The culture is different though. In professional rugby, it is not always the same. For most, but not all. Some players are focused on the money, the contracts. For me, it is all about the game."

That is how it always has been for Régis Sonnes.

And that is how the boys from Bandon will remember him in the RDS today as their erstwhile master continues on his remarkable voyage.

A unique individual who knows that often the best of himself can only be discovered by finding the best in others.

Irish Independent

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