Eight years ago, we knew Philippe Saint-Andre would take over as France coach from Marc Lievremont long before the 2011 World Cup kicked off.
Four years ago, we knew Guy Noves would replace Saint-Andre long before the first match of the 2015 World Cup.
Now we know we will know, some time before the 2019 World Cup, who will take over the hotseat when Brunel clears his desk and leaves the building with his tenure in a box at the end of his existing, extended contract in June 2020.
FFR President Bernard Laporte recently promised he would appoint Brunel’s successor before Japan 2019. “We have agreed that we have to switch quickly to the 2023 World Cup [cycle],” he said in an interview with Le Progrès.
“The next coach will be appointed before the 2019 World Cup. Because the guys I want, if I’m not the one who gets them signed, others will. So we have to move fast.”
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He also told the paper, without naming names, that he had met ‘the top five coaches in the world’ to discuss the impending vacancy.
Warren Gatland’s name has cropped up repeatedly in articles in France about who will next sit on French rugby’s iron throne. Jon Mitchell and Sir Clive Woodward have also been mentioned as possible first foreign coaches of the French national side. Woodward, famously, unsuccessfully applied for the job in 2015.
Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter have also been linked with the job – both speak French and have experience of the Top 14, which could be regarded as a positive. Both, however, have appeared to distance themselves from the job. Cotter has said his current role with Montpellier will be his last as a coach, while Schmidt is on record saying he plans to take a long break.
The French press has also put up for consideration a possibly unworkable homegrown dream-team duo of Toulouse’s Ugo Mola and Clermont’s Franck Azema. Christophe Urios mothballed his national dreams for four years at least when he signed for Bordeaux earlier this year. Lyon’s Pierre Mignoni has long been a short-odds favourite among pundits. He has even been mentioned as a possible assistant coach for an overseas choice.
The topic is a hot one in French rugby circles. It was the subject of a Twitter poll for rugby magazine programme Late Rugby Club – and some French heavyweight former players have had their say. An indicative vote, if you will.
Fabien Pelous, the former Toulouse and France lock, was quick to condemn the idea. “Once again, we will try to copy others instead of being proud of who we are,” he told Le Parisien, describing it as, “a snub for some talented technicians who do excellent work in their respective clubs, such as the duo of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, Ugo Mola or Franck Azema.”
Ex France coach Yannick Bru, meanwhile, believed overseas coaches would struggle with the French system. Asked by L’Equipe whether either Gatland or Schmidt could succeed where four French coaches in succession have failed, he said: “They are two great technicians, two great managers, but they will not be able to flourish in the current system of French rugby, in the duality that exists between the LNR and the FFR.”
His comments highlight long-standing systemic club-versus-country issues facing French rugby that efforts between the FFR and LNR over the past few years have failed to fully address.
“They’re going to ask for a total of 50 players to be made available,” Bru, now general manager at ProD2 side Bayonne, said. “They will ride over the interests of professional clubs.”
Before any coach is appointed – foreign or otherwise – there is the small matter of a national vote on whether France should go down the overseas route at all.
A letter was sent out last week to every rugby club in France announcing a “referendum consultation on whether to recruit a foreign coach to prepare for the 2023 World Cup”.
The vote – a Laporte promise announced on RMC Sport in January – will take place from 9-11 April. The result should be known on April 12.
Having already set about trying to manage expectations ahead of this year’s World Cup in Japan by saying describing qualification from the pool stages would be regarded as ‘a success’, Laporte told club bosses that he expected players and staff at Japan to be “up to the task of this exceptional event”.
“We must prepare for the future”, he added, looking ahead to France 2023 – where, he said, France should be in a position to challenge for the trophy.
“To achieve this major objective, the possibility of appointing a foreign coach to head our national team is a working hypothesis,” he said, describing it as, “a common practice in most rugby nations.”
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