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Winner who loves Toulouse

AT 5.0 that Friday, two days before his side faced Cardiff in the quarter-final, Guy Noves climbed aboard his racing bike and set off around the narrow roads of Toulouse. It wasn't something he usually did during the rugby season, but Sunday's game was weighing heavily on his mind. The sun shone brightly and the roads beckoned. Pounding out the miles, he knew he could find peace.

He had pedalled maybe 20 miles when he saw the Mercedes approaching on the wrong side of the road. "Crazy Englishman," was his first thought. His second was that he had no time before the car swept him under and killed him. So instinctively he threw himself on the bonnet, crashing through the windscreen as the bike was mangled underneath. When the car finally screeched to a halt he lay there -- half in, half out -- unconscious and all but dead.

Two weeks on he sits in the academy room of Le Stade Toulousain and recounts the details of his near-death experience as if it were another game. Another detail in a remarkably colourful 54-year-old life. The bandage on his left hand and the bruises on his legs are a reminder of how close he came. From his back pocket he whips out the prescription he needs for his medication and waves it away like it was a shopping list.

After the accident he was airlifted to hospital but they couldn't confine him to his bed. He told them his wife was an anaesthetist so he would receive proper medical care at home, but he wouldn't be confined there either. "When I came round at the hospital and realised I was still alive," he says, "I discharged myself. I didn't want to miss the match. I had to be there for the players. To help win the game."

In the Stade Ernest Wallon, he was his usual animated self, a ball of energy on the edge of the technical zone. That he had been at death's door was a closely-guarded secret. During the week, Trevor Brennan related a story from that night. As they celebrated victory, Gareth Thomas, a former Toulouse player, told Noves how surprised he was to see him at the game. "Gareth," Noves replied, tapping his forehead. "I have the mental. You do not have the mental."

It is a notable insight into a coach who lives and breathes Toulouse rugby in the way we imagine Declan Kidney to be almost joined at the hip with Munster. After a couple of hours in the Frenchman's company, it is difficult to miss the echoes between the pair, impossible not to leave thinking that if his Munster counterpart could ever be so effusive, the story he would relate would be fundamentally the same. It is a compelling coincidence that both have evolved to become the foremost coaches in European club rugby through the teaching profession, Kidney as a career guidance officer at PBC in Cork, Noves as a PE teacher in Toulouse in the mid-1970s. In his first year he started an U15 side that went on to be French champions five times. The back-bone of that team was David Skrela, who will return to Toulouse next season after a career spent between Colomieres and Stade Francais. For his old mentor, it will feel like a wheel come full circle.

He remembers how it was. He was in his mid-30s, six international caps on the wing to his name, when Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, the senior coaches at Toulouse, gently cajoled him to stop playing and start coaching the Espoirs, the club's aspiring players. "They retired me to bring younger players through," he says. "But as soon as I stopped there was a pathway to coaching laid out."

In his first year, 1988, the Espoirs won their first French championship and around the same time Kidney was bringing the PBC juniors to prominence in Munster, Noves was making a name for himself in France. Four years later he made the leap to the first team and the years since have yielded seven French titles as well as two French Cups and three Heineken Cups.

There is no point, of course, in asking Noves to explain all this success. It is there all around you, in the roll of names on the board behind him, from Villepreux to Jean-Pierre Rives and Fabian Pelous and in the ingrained belief, a typical mixture of French arrogance and humility, that Toulouse are not just about winning and losing but also about the "job of bringing pleasure to our loyal supporters".

You sense this is where Noves and Kidney come to a fork in the road. About the Frenchman there is a humility that seems somewhat affected. He professes surprise when you point out his achievements, but is quick to correct you if you are wrong. "I've been told this will be our eighth Heineken Cup semi-final," he will say of next week's tie against London Irish. As if he doesn't already know.

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It is true, though, that a certain humility underscores his genius as a coach as it is all over Kidney's at Munster. When he arrived first at Toulouse, Noves remembers there were two people on the coaching staff. Now he has two co-coaches, four physical trainers and an ever-growing medical team. He is merely the helmsman at the wheel of a large ship.

"I never interfere with my coaches and I don't interfere when the physical trainers are doing their fitness work. It's massively important to have confidence in the people around you and to trust them. They don't have to agree with you and in certain areas they might know better than you do. That's the way here. The players don't hear my voice all the time. That's something I'm conscious of."

He says he hasn't been following the sagas of Martin Johnson's appointment in England or the ongoing process of finding a replacement for Eddie O'Sullivan in Ireland. "I've already got plenty of work following my own soap operas," he smiles. But he knows Kidney well having faced Munster twice under the Corkman's stewardship with the score standing at an inconclusive one-all.

Following the World Cup last year, Noves became an unwitting character in another soap opera when he was touted as a strong candidate to succeed Bernard Laporte as France coach. Among those who publicly backed him for the post was Serge Blanco, still a powerful figure in French rugby. In the end, though, the federation opted for the younger and far less experienced Marc Lievremont.

Noves says he wasn't approached by the federation and, had he been, he would have considered it. That is as diplomatic as he gets. "It's true that politically I'm not somebody they'd have asked to do the job," he says. "But if they had decided to ask me I'd have considered it. But I'm not worrying about things which are beyond my control."

It is a complex situation, he says, coloured by rugby politics and local rivalries. "You see Toulouse is a long, long way away from the capital. It's historically been the French beacon club and so the media in particular has always played up this tension, like Toulouse thinking they are too big for Paris. It's nothing I've ever been involved in but it's difficult when you are associated with this idea whether it exists or not." Again the echoes with Kidney's situation in Ireland are clear. Though he is heavily touted for the Ireland job, Kidney hasn't yet put his head above the parapet and Noves would counsel him to keep it that way.

Look at Philippe Saint Andre, he says, who spoke openly about his ambition to coach the national team and was rebuffed. "That's why I look less ridiculous than him," Noves smiles.

He admits to knowing little of the politics that governs the Irish situation, but finds it perplexing that a coach of Kidney's standing could be subject to the same vagaries of rugby life that have stalled his own progress in France.

"I find it a bit unbelievable that politics can be more important than the sport. Ultimately, it is a sport. As far as anyone should be concerned, it's who is going to be the best person to get this group of players together and play the best rugby that they can. And sadly it may not be the case. If that's the case in Ireland, it doesn't surprise me, although it saddens me greatly that rugby can be like this."

When he is finished, he removes his bandage to shake your hand and wish you well on your way. And although it would fill both with horror to consider such a notion, you can't help thinking that anything less than a Toulouse-Munster final will be selling this great tournament short. Noves and Kidney, head to head with the two best records in northern hemisphere club rugby, two impassioned men carrying the aura of prophets being overlooked in their own land.

Something great would have to give.

London Irish v Toulouse, Saturday, Twickenham, 3.0 (tickets from ticketmaster. co.uk)

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