Sunday 17 December 2017

No romance in Paris for perennial pragmatist Saint-Andre

David Kelly

David Kelly

Paris is positively parading romance this weekend. From the banks of the Seine to the quays of the Canal Saint-Martin, lovebirds sashay hand-in-hand, blissfully oblivious of the need to declare their feelings via a Hallmark card.

Not everyone is infected though. Philippe Saint-Andre, for example. France's new rugby coach is more distant philosopher than dreamy idealist. "I'd say he's about as romantic as a text book," offers All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith.

But then, a hard heart may just be what French rugby requires atop its unpredictable pyramid, particularly after the tempestuous relationship between Marc Lievremont and both the French players and public.

"France will be solid now, which is not a bad thing for them," agrees Stade Francais coach and Heineken Cup winner with Leinster, Michael Cheika. "He'll give them a solid platform in terms of set-piece, field position and general physical play. Hopefully, the natural flamboyance and power of the players on the counter-attack and in phase play can do the rest."

After all, despite his first-hand experience immersed within the austere pragmatism of the English game during two coaching spells at Sale and Gloucester, Saint-Andre remains a Frenchman to his very core.

"Rugby is about balance. You do not always win games one way, you have to be able to mix things up and be able to adapt to the demands of the game," said the French coach.

However, Saint-Andre will not spurn flair on his journey towards consistency.

After all, this is the man who played a central role in one of the greatest international tries ever scored, the 'try from the end of the world' from Jean-Luc Sadourny in Eden Park that stunned the All Blacks in 1994.

A strike rate of 32 tries in 69 tests -- and a nickname, Le Goret (the little pig) -- befitted someone who had a knack of greedily sniffing out the whitewash.

Born in April 1967 in Romans-sur-Isère, a small district in the south-east of France, Saint-Andre has always seemed to be on the margins of the French game, his rough, rural image a far cry from the more chic, established French rugby names.

He played for Montferrand for a decade, coming closest to success when losing to Toulouse in the 1994 championship final.

His subsequent departure to the English Premiership and Gloucester in 1997 was a surprise at the time.

Still, he did captain his country on 34 occasions, albeit as a player who preferred pranks and jokes which was in stark contrast to the stern coach Pierre Berbizier.

His coaching career -- pursued initially at Gloucester after retiring in 1999, then with Bourgoin, Sale and Toulon -- offered a glimpse at the other side of his character, a more serious personality, but one not averse to volcanic explosions.

The man who once thrived on the extravagance of open play and typically French inhibition now demanded order and certainty and, despite rancorous endings at both clubs, he ultimately left both English teams in a better condition when he left.

Beloved of the "little details" -- like a certain Italian football manager -- Saint-Andre has already watched the video of last week's win against Italy three times. First to work each day, he is often the last home at night and his week has been tortured by what he deemed inefficient breakdown work and a poor set-piece last weekend.

He may not be overly romantic, but he is empathetic, in contrast to Lievremont whose greatest legacy was to arouse a mutiny from a team who still almost won the World Cup.

"He talks a lot with the players," says the imposing captain Thierry Dusautoir, so undermined by Lievremont's eccentricities. "I think it's one of his priorities -- to have a good relationship with the squad and to ensure clear communication."

Saint-Andre's message is clear: "What is very important," he says, "is that we put some rules together on the pitch, to be very clear and try to be a little more consistent. We know that for 100 years French rugby has been up and down.

"In French rugby the expectation is huge all the time. We just have to try to be as pragmatic as possible.

"When the ball came to me I knew I had to run," he says of that famous Eden Park try. "There were about six All Blacks coming for me and I thought: 'If they smash me and score a try, we still lose. If they don't we win.' We won. You have to take risks in rugby. France have always taken more risks in rugby than other teams."

Perhaps, he's a romantic after all.

Irish Independent

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