Saturday 7 December 2019

'He is the Alex Ferguson of rugby' - Trevor Brennan heaps praise on France boss Guy Noves

Toulouse legend forged a unique relationship with new France coach

Guy Noves has been likened to Alex Ferguson
Guy Noves has been likened to Alex Ferguson
David Kelly

David Kelly

Guy Noves saved Trevor Brennan's life. Before that, Guy Noves gave Trevor Brennan life.

Little wonder the one-time milkman from Leixlip looks up to the 62-year-old as his French father figure. For they have marked each other for all time.

In his last season with Toulouse, Brennan got knocked out four times; one of them nearly cost him more than a concussion.

Playing Castres in a big Friday night TV game, Toulouse had slipped a point behind when Brennan discarded his headgear, a sign that he was disregarding his own safety in order to imperil an opponent's.

Except, removing his chapeau was the last thing he remembered. Noves raced on to the field, forced the flanker's teeth apart and reached for his tongue. Brennan, who remained out cold for 11 minutes, unconsciously bit down hard upon his thumb.

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Toulouse coach Guy Noves steps in as Trevor Brennan clashes with Edinburgh’s Scott Murray during a European Cup game in 2004. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Toulouse coach Guy Noves steps in as Trevor Brennan clashes with Edinburgh’s Scott Murray during a European Cup game in 2004. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Noves still carries the scar. "He gives me the thumbs up when we see each other," Brennan smiles.

When the pair first met, Noves was rebuilding an ageing Toulouse side in a city still emotionally scarred from the 2001 chemical plant explosion which killed 31 people and injured thousands.

Noves jettisoned legends - Califano, Lacroix, Tournaire - from the damaged Le Stadium and renewed with some youthful emerging stars: Ellisalde, Poux, Clerc, Jauzion.

But Noves wanted something different; a physical, experienced back-five player who could bring a ferocity to his forward pack. He spotted his quarry in a Heineken Cup game when Leinster played Toulouse.

When they met for dinner, Noves said nothing during their lunch engagement until it ended. He stood up, carefully scanned the Barnhall bruiser before tapping him on the stomach, muttering "pas mal".

He could have been scoping a Christmas turkey. Then again, he was questing what he termed, a "rare bird". He had found one and thus a beautiful relationship was irrevocably formed.

"He is an incredible coach," says Brennan now. "He brought a different dimension to my game.

"I know for him it probably took him about three months of screaming and shouting at me to stay off the floor, offload the ball before the contact and even kick the ball at certain stages which I would never have done in Ireland.

France's rugby union team new head coach Guy Noves. Photo: Jacques Brinon/AP Photo
France's rugby union team new head coach Guy Noves. Photo: Jacques Brinon/AP Photo

"Discipline was a big thing, it was important to be aggressive but be disciplined as well, to know when to be aggressive. He got the very best out of me which nobody had ever done in Ireland.

"He had that ability to spend individual time with me on-on-one which nobody had done at any stage in Ireland. He went through every bit of my game and he found all my strengths and weaknesses." Together they would win two European titles and one French title. In all his time there, Noves would win ten titles and four Heineken Cups.

Despite his fiercely parochial, anti-establishment nature, he refused the French job twice before. He bled red and black but Brennan believes the time had come for him to leave Toulouse as the great club faces another transition.

"He was totally anti-establishment," explains the former Ireland international who runs Trevor Brennan Rugby Tours.

"He couldn't believe when the France team took ten of his players and they'd send back a few of them injured.


"He would chase down the French doctors and physios and blame them, he was criticising the federation on a weekly basis.

"He was offered it twice before but always said he was red and black. But after winning so much, a bit like Alex Ferguson, he felt the time was right to go.

"Guy had 23 years, Fergie 25. He would have had a job for life and the generation of players were gone. It will take another four or five years to rebuild, a bit like Munster. I just don't think he had the energy to do it.

"He's a mixture of Brian Clough and Ferguson in my view. His knowledge of the game will be a huge benefit.

"He's a players' coach. If he has something to say to you, it won't be behind closed doors like some coaches I've known. He will call you everything under the sun and explain later that he had to do that for the sake of the group. He can press the right buttons."

It will take time to overhaul the declining national team, though.

"Everyone has written France off especially because the Ireland game was on a different level to the game in Paris. If Ireland perform to that level they will win.

"But you saw a glimpse of how France can be when they do throw the ball around. There was a spark there, offloading in the tackle, trying to get wide. That's what Guy wants.

"But there needs to be a game-plan and, in defence, that is missing. It's all over the place, rushing up and that's also based on individuals which doesn't always work.

"He wants players to play what they see in front of them, regardless of who you are or where you are on the pitch.

"It's a young team and he will have a massive clean-out and give a lot of young guys a chance but there won't be many one-cap wonders like in previous years.

"It will take time and people will criticise him, it is already starting. They want more experience. He will stick with a squad whether they win, lose or draw."

When Noves left Toulouse, he invited a member of each of his title-winning squads to lead the side out; Brennan, as the Dublin Heineken Cup winner of 2003, was one of them.

He will have Ireland in his heart this weekend, but it will also skip a beat in empathy with the old master.

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