The founding father of French flair
May 18, 2010
Pierre Villepreux looks on during France's defeat by Australia in the 1999 World Cup final © Getty Images
If everyone in life called a spade a spade, what would we call Pierre Villepreux? The former Toulouse and France player and coach is credited with the reinvention of French rugby in the 1980s towards the flair-based game that it aspires to be today. Quite simply, 'le beau jeu' as we know it in 2010 would not exist. Nor perhaps, would Stade Toulousain as standard-bearers of that philosophy.
There had always been flair in the way the game was played in France, going all the way back to the aristocrats of Racing Club and Stade Francais in the 19th century. It was still there in the 1950s and 60s through the great Lourdes club of Jean Prat and the France teams of the Boniface brothers. But as the wide-eyed hopes of the sixties generation gave way to the morose, pragmatic France of President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, so too did the rugby, with Béziers' and Agen's forward-orientated styles dominating for the following 15 years, not to mention Jacques Fouroux' France.
By 1982, however, something was stirring in Toulouse. Two former players turned coaches, Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela, wanted to wrestle rugby out of its one-dimensional form. Backed by club president Jean Fabre, Villepreux went about revolutionising not only the way the game was played at Toulouse but the way in which players thought about the game - during the game.
"I worked as a PE teacher while I was playing rugby," explains Villepreux. "When I played you didn't have coaches, you had the selectors and the captain. But my profession allowed me to reflect on how we train as rugby players and how to develop the intelligence of the player on the field. I thought a lot about that.
"It wasn't about telling them what to do. It was the opposite of that. But it was getting everyone on the same page in terms of thinking on their feet. Players should be constantly thinking on the field of play, not just programmed with a set-list of moves."
By 1985, Toulouse were reborn, with Villepreux's 'total rugby' philosophy winning them their first French Championship in 38 years. Another followed in 1986 and again in 1989. Coupled with growing commercial operation of the club under the direction of Fabre, Toulouse happened to be in the perfect place when professionalism came calling in the early nineties. Yet style wasn't the only thing that Villepreux instilled; he fostered and encouraged the idea that the club was a family that nurtured its young in the academy and looked after the elderly (or retired players) through its contacts in business. It wasn't the first club to do this but it remains the most successful and, according to Villepreux, still does it to this day.
"Very little has changed. Toulouse is a family where the players were encouraged to think so it's no surprise that they've never needed to bring in coaches from the outside. Guy Noves started off as a player coaching the kids. By 1989 he was on our coaching staff."
Alongside Skrela, Villepreux hit the big time in the nineties, coaching France to Grand Slams in 1997, '98 and a World Cup final in '99. He admits that while large portions of it were the most enjoyable of his career, he was still shocked when he got the call.
"When Jean-Claude asked me to join him in 1996, I was a little surprised as I thought even by then that I'd never be a French coach. Coaching is a young man's game in many respects. To be a good coach you have to be a certain age where you have the passion and motivation."
With that in mind, Villepreux insists that the rugby of today, whilst still enjoyable to watch, is no longer something he'd like to coach. Times, it seems, have changed. "The physical preparation has progressed hugely," he says. "Players are bigger, stronger and faster. Technically, the players are a little better, too, but aside from that I don't think the players' rugby intelligence has progressed much.
"Having less space today is not a big problem because the point of the game has changed a little. In the past, it was all about taking the action away from the collision area. Now because players are bigger, the collisions are used to make space for others. It's a subtle change but makes a big difference."
Last weekend was probably the first time a French club prioritised a European match over a French Championship semi-final. Toulouse obviously went out to win the game against Perpignan but their body language, and perhaps more importantly, their replacements bench told us that there was another match that was more important. This weekend's final in Paris against Biarritz gives the club the opportunity of a fourth European Cup, something that Villepreux believes is in the club's blood.
"Toulouse were the first team in the modern era to offer people something a little different. I believe more and more that the French clubs are starting to prioritise the H Cup. But it was Toulouse who were at the heart of starting an H Cup. They organised the Masters competition (invitational competition in 1986) because they had a vision of what direction the game was going."
These days Villepreux is heavily involved in the IRB and aside from his media commitments in France, still loves to get caught up in tactical discussion. But he'll be forever remembered in France as the tactical genius that rescued French rugby from the 'Dark Ages' of the late 1970s. No doubt a few Toulouse supporters this weekend would be quick to call the man a genius. After all, sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.