Monday 19 March 2018

From Bandon to Toulouse: A rugby coach in West Cork is taking over one of the world's biggest clubs

Bandon RFC head coach Regis Sonnes (right) and his son Jules.
Bandon RFC head coach Regis Sonnes (right) and his son Jules.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

He doesn't quite have the local lilt but after two years in Bandon, Regis Sonnes considers himself a bona fide Western Corkonian.

You may not be familiar with the French coach currently in charge of Bandon RFC and the head of rugby at Bandon Grammer School, but Irish supporters will likely come across the former flanker next year when he takes up the role of co-head coach at Toulouse, his old club.

Sonnes will join one of the giants of world rugby to work with current boss Ugo Mola in a similar dynamic to Les Deux Laurents, Labit and Travers, who head up Racing 92. Sonnes and Mola will be assisted by former French hooker William Servat and have Toulouse Espoirs coaches Clement Poitrenaud and Jean Bouilhou to call on if required, all three of whom are club legends.

The three-time Top 14 champion's journey from the French league to Bandon and back again is one of the rugby's most surprising tales - think of Jerry Flannery upping sticks and leaving Munster for a small French amateur club far away from the professional spotlight.

After four years as the Bordeaux-Begles forwards coach in the French top flight, Sonnes wanted to refresh himself before he became burnt out. Never afraid to make a decision from deep in left field - he walked away from rugby for a year at 22 after winning back-to-back French leagues under Guy Noves at Toulouse - an opportunity arose to leave pro rugby behind and throw himself into a project far away from home.

He is delighted with his decision - and is now ready to come back and attack one of rugby's top jobs.

"Now I am a West Cork man!," Sonnes says.

"It is not a joke. I love the country. I connect with the people here, the tradition, the GAA and the players. I am very happy with my experience.

"Toulouse was the only club that could change my mind, the only one that could take me back to France. It is wonderful to be going back there.

"I spoke to Toulouse first in November, we spoke a lot about the club and it was a difficult decision because my commitment here is important, with the club and the school.

"In the school, I started with the fourth years and was hoping to finish the senior cycle with them but then this opportunity came and it was very difficult."

This Sunday, the Bandon RFC senior team travel to Clare to take on St Senan's as they look to continue their push towards top sport in the Munster Junior League Division One.

24 hours earlier, Toulouse will aim to maintain their resurgence this season at home to Agen in the Top 14.

The French giants and the West Cork outfit will ostensibly be playing the same sport next weekend, but they are on opposite ends of the rugby spectrum. The most successful team in the history of both the European Cup and the French League have a bottomless budget to recruit the world's top players and facilities that are the envy of most professional sides.

Bandon is on the up an up after promotions through the Junior ranks in recent years - but Top 14 standard they are not (although the often fractious nature of Junior rugby wouldn't be too dissimilar from some PRO D2 dust-ups).

The two sides are literally - and in fairness, figuratively - over 2000km apart, but Sonnes says that he has learnt a great deal about coaching, and himself, by working with schoolboy and amateur players rather than highly-paid professionals.

"I have improved a lot," Sonnes said.

"During the two years, I needed to refresh myself. Now I am ready to come back.

"People were very surprised [when he left Bordeaux for Bandon]. In my career as a player and a coach, I’ve looked for new experiences and to meet new people. I did four years in Spain too. It is a philosophy of my life, to meet people. Sometimes it is very good to coach at a high level because you have everything you want. But coaching an underage team and a club has been very interesting for a trainer like me. I needed to adapt all my concepts to find the best for them so I have learned a lot here."

Another reason for the move to Ireland was that Sonnes wanted to broaden the horizons of his two children as well as his own, although he admits that it can be tough to have a rugby coach for a dad - his family have already gone from various stops in France to Madrid and on to Bandon.

But he hopes his family will be better for the experience, and they have all bought into Irish culture. Even away from his day job, Sonnes has made sure to enjoy his time in West Cork.

"I don’t have only rugby in my life – I have surfing, I have fishing, when I was in Spain I liked bullfighting," he says.

"I came with my surfboard and I tried to go once a week."

Although both the rugby club and the school had good foundations in place, the presence of a renowned professional coach has taken the sport in Bandon ahead even further. Last year the rugby club won the Munster Junior Cup for the first time in its history at Thomond Park, while Bandon Grammer School qualified for the Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final in 2017.

For Sonnes, the special moment with the club at the home of Munster rugby resonated as much as claiming the Bouclier de Brennus with Toulouse.

"Last year was beautiful, it was wonderful, it was incredible what we did," Sonnes said.

"I liked writing something in the history of the club. When I go somewhere I like to be part of the history of the club. It was huge. And this year we can win the league and last year we got to the Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final with the school so I am very happy."

Bandon are currently second in the Munster Junior League Division One, and adding that honour would be the perfect way to cap Sonnes' two-year journey in West Cork. The ambition to coach at the highest level of rugby was always there for Sonnes, but after so many seasons at the pressurised coalface, his energy levels weren't the same.

Just like when he was a player, he had to say 'stop' before he lost his edge.

"I had won the French championship with Toulouse and at 22 I decided to stop because I didn’t have a lot of energy," he says.

"I didn’t want to be shadow of myself, I wanted to give my best. At that moment, I needed to refresh my mind and my body so I stopped for the recovery. It was great because after I came back it was difficult but I enjoyed it. When I don’t enjoy it I want to stop for a little bit and come back.

"It was the same when I stopped in Bordeaux to come here."

Sonnes says he will keep an eye out for Bandon's results next season and vows to come back and visit - possibly if Toulouse get drawn with Munster in the Champions Cup.

Now as he gears up for his biggest head coaching job to date, at the club of his dreams, he can be content that despite the shock his initial decision caused at home and here - there was a full page spread in one French paper - the move to West Cork has paid off handsomely.

Even when his side are taking on behemoths like Clermont and Toulon next season, Sonnes admits he will miss the Irish people, the culture - and some of the local delicacies.

"The Guinness! I'll miss he real Guinness because in Toulouse they don’t have the real thing."

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