By Gavin Mortimer
IT’S NOT just British and Irish players beating a path to France to further their rugby education. Scan the staff lists of the French clubs and you’ll spot more than a few familiar names among the coaches: Bernard Jackman at Grenoble, Ronan O’Gara at Racing Metro, Jeremy Davidson at Aurillac, Tom Smith at Bergerac. And down in Bordeaux-Begles Joe Worsley is making a name for himself as defence coach.
Worsley has former Wasps team-mate Raphael Ibanez to thank for the job. It was he, in his capacity as Bordeaux-Begles head coach, who recruited him in May 2012, six months after a neck injury had forced Worsley into retirement. “I played with him for five years at Wasps and could already see his qualities as a defender and the ideas he had concerning that sector of the game,” said Ibanez at the time.
Worsley didn’t take long to accept Ibanez’s offer. “I’ve lived in and around for London for most of my of life and I wanted to experience a foreign culture,” he explains. “Also, I had this wealth of knowledge built up over my playing career, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a coach. I thought the sooner I found out the better.”
So off Worsley went, down to Bordeaux in the south-west of France, where the wine is magnificent but the rugby less so. Winners of the Top 14 title just twice in their history, their last success was in 1991 when they beat Toulouse in the final.
“Bordeaux and Begles have two distinct cultures,” explains Worsley. “Begles is an urban conurbation in Bordeaux and in rugby terms it’s like Gloucester. The Bordeaux side of the club is more like a London team and they regard each other as different to the other.”
Bordeaux or Begles, when Worsley pitched up he couldn’t speak a word of French so he set out to master the language. “My lack of French curtailed my ability to coach on the spur of the moment. By Christmas (2012) I was able to get by and now I can express myself fine in French. It was hard work because I’ve three young boys and in between them and the coaching, I really had to find the time to learn French.”
Such determination is no surprise. Anyone who saw Worsley play during his 12-year England career remembers a player who gave it his all, a lion-hearted loose forward who also won a cap for the Lions on the 2009 tour to South Africa.
“I came to France ready to buy into their way of doing things,” explains Worsley. “They do some things better than we do in England and they do some things worse. You’ve got to roll with it.”
One aspect of the French game Worsley struggled with initially was the infuriating habit of players ready to die for the cause at home and not giving a damn on the road. “I’m beginning to understand why they have this emphasis on winning at home,” says Worsley. “It starts at a very young age and we’re working on it so hopefully it will change.”
But not yet at Bordeaux-Begles, who lie ninth in the table. Wins at home over Toulouse, Castres and Oyonnax have been interspersed with defeats away at Grenoble and Brive, both of whom are below them in the table.
Back in the late 1990s Bordeaux-Begles recorded some thumping victories in the Heineken Cup over the likes of Leinster and the Scarlets, but in recent years they’ve been more used to the Amlin. Next month they host Bath and in December travel to the Dragons to take part in a competition that next year might be a French-free zone. Where does Worsley stand on the great Euro debate?
“The club game in England and France is growing the whole time, and with it the commercial side,” he replies. “In Wales, Scotland and Ireland they haven’t the economy on the same scale and the English and French leagues are so much bigger financially than the Celts. It’s natural that they will want a bigger part in the competition because they are bringing in more money. But it’s a tournament I adore and we need to have six nations in it so I hope it can all be resolved diplomatically.”