Toulouse carry French hopes of final flourish
March 31, 2009
Toulouse coach Guy Noves is France's most decorated coach of the modern era © Getty Images
What a depressing few months it's been for those who follow 'le ballon ovale'. If having only one club qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup back in January wasn't bad enough for French rugby, a poor Six Nations campaign has left a particularly bitter after-taste to what has been a season to forget.
Throw in the financial problems afflicting some clubs, the player-agent scandal, worries over the number of overseas players and the growing concerns over the length of the season and you get a sense of the depressing flux that the game finds itself in at the moment in France.
At the centre of this maelstrom is one Marc Lièvremont who you'd have to feel a tad sorry for. His second bash at a Six Nations campaign has been a bit of a disaster and he will shoulder much of the blame for a championship riddled with tactical and selection errors.
Lièvremont's job however, has not been made any easier by the mess that French rugby currently finds itself in. The plethora of overseas players has undoubtedly affected the number of players available for selection whilst the sheer number of matches in the Top 14 has meant that his players often arrived in Paris weary and battle worn, in stark contrast to the fresh and rested players of the Home Nations.
To make matters worse, reaching a consensus to fix these problems looks a long way off. The parochial nature of French rugby was highlighted recently when the LNR (Ligue National de Rugby) boss Pierre-Yves Revol insisted that there was nothing wrong with the club calendar. Lièvremont, FFR president Pierre Camou and Toulouse, Clermont and Stade Francais all disagree however and it remains to be seen if plans for a reduction to twelve clubs can be forced through.
Meanwhile, Lièvremont's next opportunity to finally kick-start his international career will be a Test against the All Blacks in Dunedin on June 13. If that task wasn't already hard enough, it's likely that a majority of the players that start that night will have played in the Top 14 Final seven days previously. And while it's a moot point to suggest who could do better than the current French coach given the working conditions, it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Lièvremont's inexperience at senior level has been a costly factor for this French side.
One wonders what Guy Novès makes of it all. The 55-year-old will spend this week preparing his charges for Saturday's visit to high-flying Brive before switching his attention to his sides' Heineken Cup quarter-final tie against the Cardiff Blues. Life for Novès it seems just carries on as normal. He is France's most decorated coach of the modern era having won eight French Championships and three Heineken Cups since joining the Toulouse coaching staff in 1989 and his agitated, brooding presence on the sideline has become one of those classic images in the recent history of the game in Europe.
Now twenty years at the helm of Toulouse, Novès has shown no sign of slowing down just yet and it seems as though his thirst for success has not diminished either. With Toulouse all but qualified for the Top 14 play-offs, the veteran coach will have turned his attention to that quarter-final tie in the Millennium Stadium on the April 11. Novès has conceded many times in the past that he regards a Top 14 - Heineken Cup double as 'almost impossible' but it must remain a driving ambition inside an intensely competitive man.
It is perhaps poignant to reflect on where France might be if Novès shared the same driving ambition for the national side as he has for Toulouse or if the FFR had been actually interested in promoting the best man for the job instead of someone who ticked all the boxes politically. Sadly for the French national team, Noves was never offered the job and there's no guarantee that the Toulousain would have taken it anyway.
Supporters of Stade Toulousain have become used to the gossip, however. It's 'natural' they insist, that a coach as good as Novès is in the running every time the national job is up for grabs. But they've always felt safe in the knowledge that he is too much of a maverick and too much of a clubman to fit snugly into one of those French Federation blazers. If truth were told, who could possibly imagine him sitting po-faced alongside Jo Maso in the Stade de France? The Novès we know is the one kneeling on the sideline week in-week out kitted out in a tracksuit.
Last Sunday night at Stadium de Toulouse, Novès was there again on the sideline, barking out orders to one and all. The 35,000 souls who came to see Stade Francais taken apart will have left the stadium disappointed with the performance but happy with the result. The match was dull and Toulouse lacked a cutting edge, having moved Yannick Jauzion to outside half. But their pack dominated for long periods and with Patricio Albacete, Byron Kelleher, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and David Skrela all set to return from injury in the next few weeks, Toulouse look like they'll get stronger as they head towards the business end of the season.
And with Novès at the helm, anything is possible.