PHILIPPE SAINT-ANDRÉ has plenty on his plate this week. On Friday night his Montpellier team take on Leicester Tigers in the Challenge Cup final, a significant step for a club who were in chaos just a few short months ago.
It’s a busy couple of days between training, planning and travelling, but Saint-André still manages to make time for a couple of quick Zoom calls to help launch the 2021 edition of The Big Rugby Run, which takes place this Saturday.
Three days out from the Challenge Cup decider, Saint-André seems relaxed and in good spirits. After a couple of minutes going over Montpellier’s revival since he succeeded Xavier Garbajosa as head coach earlier this year, the conversation moves onto another coach making waves in the French game.
“He’s doing an amazing job,” Saint-André says of Ronan O’Gara, whose La Rochelle team take on Toulouse in Saturday’s Champions Cup final.
“And next year he will be the director of rugby, so he will be the number one. I know the president of La Rochelle (Vincent Merling) well. He’s in business for 28 years, so if he gives a piece to Ronan O’Gara, it’s because Ronan is popular and very good in his job.”
Saint-André has recent experience against O’Gara, with his improving Montpellier side beating La Rochelle by 10 points at home a few weeks ago.
“When you see La Rochelle this year they are disciplined, they are organised, they have a good kicking strategy and are difficult to read because they have strong forwards who are also very good in attack,” Saint-André explains.
Philippe Saint-Andre has helped launch the 2021 Big Rugby Run. Source: ©INPHO
“So he’s (O’Gara) not just a good young coach – he’s a good coach. La Rochelle are in the top two of the Top 14 and the final of the Champions Cup for the first time in their history, so he’s doing a lot of things right. He’s very popular, and French people like people who adapt and speak the language, which he does, to his credit.”
Saint-André has also been making the right impressions since stepping back into the French club scene. Montpellier sat 13th in the Top 14 when he took on the job in January, and had won just three from 10 matches. They lost their first five games under his watch but have since gone on to win nine of their last 11.
That run has only lifted them as far as 10th in the league but has also brought about an unlikely Challenge Cup final appearance.
Saint-André admits he finds the relentless nature of the Top 14 season challenging, particularly in a Covid-disrupted season. At one point Montpellier had to negotiate three games in the space of just eight days.
Still, he looks at the domestic structure and sees the French clubs doing well in Europe while the international side continue to improve under Fabien Galthié.
Saint-André remembers the lie of the land in France when he was in charge of the national team, and wonders if they have finally cracked it.
“When I was the coach of the French team we were struggling because we didn’t have a lot of French players. So we reacted and changed. We put a lot of money in the academies, you had JIFF, where 16 players in a squad had to come from French academies.
Saint-Andre during his time as France head coach. Source: Andrew Matthews
“So we started to see all these great French players playing each week in the Top 14, and they (France) started to be good. You can see now the French team is going so well because Fabien Galthié can pick nearly three great teams (from his player pool).
“I think we were wrong nine, ten years ago, and it was a disaster for the French team.
“The French team was struggling because we had too many overseas players (in the league). Toulon were great but they won the Top 14 (2013/14) with 12 overseas players in the starting 15.
“Now that’s impossible, you need to have 16 French players in the 23. So you can (still) have overseas players, and that’s good because they do bring something, but you also need to adapt and play your young players. So clubs, with the salary cap, started to save money and spend the money on the academies, good coaching and good structures in the club.
“And you can see it. The final of the Champions Cup is La Rochelle v Toulouse, and then us (Montpellier), three months ago we were bottom of the league and now we are in the final of the Challenge Cup.
“You can see the quality of the Top 14 of the moment. And also of course the TV rights is a lot of money, so it’s all good for French rugby.”