Toulon, USAP, Biarritz and the Spirit of French Rugby
Peter Steinberg December 20th, 2012
Last week was a great opportunity for me to get a taste of French rugby. Nigel Melville opened the door to the Toulon Rugby Club through Olivier Azam. Olivier had played for Nigel when he was at Gloucester and was a very generous host at Toulon. I have been to a number of professional teams and Toulon was by far the most welcoming. On my first morning almost every player came up to welcome me and introduce themselves. This included all the internationals on the team like Johnny Wilkinson, Joe van Niekirk, Freddy Michilak etc.
The Director of Rugby at Toulon is Benard Laporte, the former French National Team coach. It was great to see him work with his team and develop their attacking structure. I spent some time with him on the second day talking about his approach – which was half in English and half in French! On both days the majority of the time was spent in their “collective” work where they play 15v15. I picked up a lot on the 2 days, and one of the things I will definitely take away was the having the forwards and backs in different colored pinnies so you can see the shape of the attack and defense and who is where on defense. Of course it was also amazing to see all these players put in extra work, even when they were world class players. After practice most of the team hung around and worked on some specific skills…and the last one to leave each day was Johnny!
After my trip to Toulon I had a weekend of watching rugby as I saw Biarritz play Connacht, USAP men play Worcester and the USAP women play Bobigny. The women’s game was by far the best match of the weekend as USAP pulled away in the second half. After the match I caught up with the French Women’s backs coach and we talked for 30 minutes. I then caught up with Henri Sagol, who was the former coach of USAP (and Toulouges as it was before). Henri and I have known each other for 8 years as in 2004 Penn State played the Toulouges team, and beat us by over 100-0! He has won 5 French Championships and has worked with the French National Team several times. He is one of the early pioneers of the French women’s game.
Henri and I had a great conversation about the “French style” of play. Henri believes that there are two parts to the French approach. The first is the way that they practice – the collective – with forwards and backs playing together. This is unlike the Anglo-Saxon approach that has lots of skills and technical work and a team run. The collective work (or general movement) is what Laporte did with Toulon and in the 45 minutes of “collective” only the last 10 minutes were from scrums or lineouts. Everything else was from particular situations – go forward ball, go backwards, turnover etc.
The second thing that Henri talked about was how, to the French, that rugby was more about their spirit, that it came from the heart. The fact is the French love the brutality of rugby. It is the physical nature of the game that is evident more than they passing and running that you think of. At both women’s games I have seen there has been a real fight with fists flying. I am struggling to remember if I have seen a fight in a women’s match in the US. But it is that passion that defines French rugby and it is that passion that allows them to move the ball around and play with such width and adventure, and also to step up and fight for their teammates.