Life and rugby has come pretty easily to French legend Fabien Galthie but his Montpellier side are flattering to deceive and it's time he stepped up
There’s always been a touch of the Brendan Venter about Fabien Galthie. The pair have much in common. Very good players who have become very good coaches, harnessing their playing experience to deep intelligence and an innate streak of boldness. Both are also their own men. In a sport that is most comfortable with conformity the former Saracens’ director of rugby and the Montpellier coach do things their way – and to hell with convention. Who can forget Venter’s extraordinary post-match interview four years ago, his response to an RFU fine for using intemperate language?
Venter thought it was funny, most viewed it as petulant, symptomatic of a man who treads a fine line between self-assurance and arrogance. It’s another trait he shares with Galthie. Talented, handsome and charismatic, Galthie was born blessed – and he knows it. Winner of 64 caps and the first Frenchmen to appear in four World Cup finals, Galthie moved effortlessly into coaching a year after his 2003 retirement .
Joining Stade Francais in 2004-05, he guided them into the Top 14 final in his first season in charge and two seasons later repeated the feat – only this time Stade triumphed. Galthie stood down from coaching in 2008, choosing instead to put his engaging personality to good use as a rugby consultant on French television. He was lured back to coaching in 2010 by Montpellier, and in his first season they reached their first Top 14 final, losing 15-10 to Toulouse in a match that confirmed Montpellier as a serious player in French rugby.
There was talk in 2011 that Galthie could replace Marc Lievremont as the coach of the national team, but Philippe Saint-Andre got that particular gig. He was the safe choice. Galthie would have been a gamble. More exciting, for sure, but less malleable, less likely to toe the FFR line. Galthie doesn’t do pliable. He does what Galthie wants. He proved it earlier this month, jetting off to Brazil to help French business tycoon Serge Kampf celebrate his 80th birthday. It was a great party apparently, one attended by a host of famous faces from French rugby. Thomas Castaignede was there, so too Philippe Bernat-Salles and Max Guazzini.
Bernard Laporte and Guy Noves were also invited but respectfully declined. “I explained to Serge Kampf that it wasn’t possible,” said Laporte. The Toulon director of rugby had Top 14 commitments, as did Noves. Galthie, too, but he went anyway, missing Montpellier’s match against Oyonnax.
He returned on the following Tuesday, touching down to a torrent of criticism. “I know what sort of society we live in and this fuss conforms precisely to our society today,” said Galthie by way of response. “I’m not at all surprised by its scale.”
On the one hand, good for you, Galthie. He’d cleared it with his employer, Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad, so what business is it of anyone’s – lest of all Laporte, a man who in recent seasons has hardly set a stirring example what with his tirades against referees? But it was naïve of Galthie, normally so media savvy, not to expect his rivals to seize on his South American jolly. It was an error of judgement to accept Kampf’s invitation, a case of Galthie’s ego getting the better of his common sense. As a result he’s become vulnerable. Two good victories in the Rugby Champions Cup and the furore would have been forgotten. But Montpellier tasted only defeat, losing away at Toulouse and at home to Glasgow.
Galthie failed to strike the right tone in his post-match interview after the Glasgow game, muttering about mistakes costing his side dear. But his words appeared a bit blasé, not helped by his smiling.
Mohed Altrad wasn’t amused. The Montpellier owner is a tough man, orphaned at an early age and raised by desert nomads in Syria. Self-taught and self-made, Altrad earned his millions through business flair and sheer bloody graft and he doesn’t take kindly to complacency. Normally after each home game Altrad pops into the Montpellier dressing-room to offer a few words of encouragement, win, lose or draw. Not after the Glasgow game. “It’s a message,” he said later, adding that the defeat was “disastrous”. He would be seeking answers from players and coaches.
Prior to the start of the season Altrad had stated that anything other than reaching the quarter-final of the Rugby Champions Cup would be seen as a failure. Montpellier are on the brink of elimination after just two rounds and he’s furious. “If we haven’t reached our objective and there’s a need to start again from scratch it’s because the work hasn’t been done like it should have been done,” explained Altrad. There was a indcation, too, that he was becoming impatient with Montpellier’s failure to kick on since their one and only Top 14 final appearance. In the last three seasons they have finished in the top six of the regular season only to be outmanoeuvred by Castres in the play-offs each time. Last season their Heineken Cup campaign was a fiasco (they beat only Treviso) and the Champions Cup looks like going the same way. “We have stumbled again but everybody stumbles,” said Altrad. “You know my history, I don’t give up just like that and I will lead this club where I want to lead it.”
It was a clear warning to Galthie. The days of nonchalance are over, it’s time to knuckle down.