French coach-in-waiting, Guy Noves has had a 22-year coaching education at Toulouse in readiness for the top job. So what do we know about the four-time Heineken Cup winner?
To nobody’s great surprise Guy Noves was officially unveiled on Sunday as France’s next coach, with Yannick Bru as his forwards’ coach and Jeff Dubois in charge of the backs. The trio will succeed Philippe Saint-Andre’s existing regime after the autumn World Cup.
According to the French press it wasn’t a unanimous decision among the seven-man FFR panel. Jean-Claude Skrela and Didier Retière apparently had reservations about Noves, who will turn 62 the day before he takes charge of his first France international against Italy on February 6.
Noves’ age shouldn’t be held against him but the fact is few coaches have been appointed to their first international role in their sixties. Graham Henry was 64 when he guided the All Blacks to the World Cup four years ago, but the Kiwi had been coaching Test match sides since he was 51.
Noves’ age means there is an immediate generational barrier between him and his players. The likes of Stuart Lancaster, Heyneke Meyer and Joe Schmidt are in their 40s, just one generation above their charges; Noves is old enough to be the grandfather of some of France’s World Cup squad. Will he be able to tune into the same wavelength as players 40 years his junior?
‘Arrogant’, ‘dictatorial’ and ‘combative’ are just some of the words that have been used in the past to describe the former schoolteacher, and Noves was in spiky form on Monday morning when interviewed live on Franceinfo, a radio station that is similar in style and content to BBC Radio Four. It wasn’t an easy interview for the presenter and it will probably set the tone for the next four years. One thing’s for sure, the days of British rugby journalists asking questions in English, as they do in Philippe Saint-Andre’s press conferences, are over. Noves has never given the impression that he is much of an Anglophile.
Nor has he been overtly friendly to the France national team in the past, a point emphasised by Bernard Laporte on Sunday. The Toulon coach, who was at the helm of Les Bleus from 1999 to 2007, recalled in a radio interview that Noves “was never very helpful [as Toulouse coach] towards the French team. He often blocked the path of the [national] coaches. We couldn’t go and watch training sessions at Toulouse. We shouldn’t forget that.”
Laporte also mischievously declared his surprise that Yannick Bru has agreed to work under Noves. The fomer Toulouse hooker spent five years as the club’s forwards coach before leaving in 2011 to work in the same capacity for PSA. “I saw Bru at Toulon three months ago,” said Laporte. “He told me he could never coach again alongside Guy Noves.”
There’s no doubt Noves likes to be in control. Charismatic, egoist and defiant, he’s always been his own man, as he demonstrated as a player more than 35 years ago. A wiry, tenacious winger, he was first capped for France in 1977, making a further six appearances before retiring from Test rugby in 1979 at the age of 25.
Depending on one’s point of view, Noves took a courageous moral decision to retire or he was guilty of spectacular petulance. Named in the France squad for the 1979 Five Nations match against England, Noves declined the selection because he felt he hadn’t fully recovered from a thigh injury. The selectors brought in Frederic Costes, and retained him for the final match of the Five Nations against Scotland.
Noves was outraged, telling Midi Olympique at the time that he hadn’t received from the FFR “the least contact, the least sign of interest. Just dismissed! Nobody bothered to find out how I was or what had become of me.”
Denying that he was a “big head” for retiring from Test rugby, Noves laid the blame squarely at the feet of the FFR for their lack of respect. He concluded by saying he “will continue to enjoy club rugby, in an ambiance and a lifestyle that agrees with me”.
In response to Noves’ retirement, the then captain of France (and also a Toulouse teammate), Jean-Pierre Rives, said he “feared” Noves would soon walk away from rugby altogether.
But he didn’t, playing for Toulouse for another decade before becoming coach of the club in 1988-89. He stood down in 1990 but was back three years later.
Last Saturday he oversaw his final home game as his remarkable reign draws to a close with this weekend’s Top 14 semi-final match with Clermont likely to be his last match in charge. Though Toulouse have achieved greatness under Noves – winning an unprecedented four European titles and nine Top 14 crowns – his best days lie in the past. They’ve failed to reach the quarter-final of the Champions Cup in two of the last three campaigns, and last season they didn’t make the Top 14 semi-finals for the first time in 21 years.
The Toulouse fans have started drifting away, disenchanted not so much at the lack of success but the sterility of the rugby they’ve witnessed. In the 2011-12 season an average home gate was 20,100, down to 19,519 the following season. This season it has dropped to 16,823.
Noves blames Toulouse’s travails on everyone but himself, criticising the league structure, the FFR and, increasingly, his players. But the truth is he’s a man who has lost the feel for the modern game, unable to build teams capable of playing with pace, power and imagination, a man left behind by the transformation of the Top 14 into the world’s most ambitious domestic leage. True, Toulouse have flared into life at times this season – most notably when they beat Toulon 34-24 – but the impression is that’s in spite of Noves not because of him.
Noves ended his tense radio interview on Monday by informing the presenter in his best schoolmasterly manner that he didn’t care if the English press were critical of what the French national team has become. “I’ll take no lessons from the English press,” he snapped. And of course, he shouldn’t. But if Noves thinks he knows everything there is know after 22 years coaching Toulouse he’s in for a shock. Test match rugby is a school of hard knocks, as Saint-Andre will be able to tell him.