After nine years hard labour in the D2, Pau have thrust themselves back to the top table, and with Conrad Smith incoming, head coach Simon Mannix is optimistic

Rarely has one team dominated their rivals the way Pau have this season in ProD2. Crowned champions of France’s second division a month before the end of the regular season, Pau are 16 points clear of second-place Perpignan and now preparing for a return to the Top 14 after nine years out of the top-flight. Rugby World caught up with their head coach, former All Black Simon Mannix who, after spells as backs’ coach at Racing Metro and Munster, has guided Pau back to the promised land.

Rugby World: What’s been the key to Pau’s success this season?
Simon Mannix: I was fortunate to have a staff here who wanted to change and who followed everything I implemented very well. The players were very receptive, too, and that allowed us to get off to a good start in winning eight out of eight. The challenge was then maintaining that start and fortunately our work was good and we were able to keep the momentum going.

RW: Surprised by the extent of Pau’s domination?
SM: The foundations were outstanding before I arrived but when you set the bar high with guys who haven’t been exposed to the highest level I was a little concerned. But generally speaking I had 80 percent of squad who were very receptive and reacted quickly, and so we could carry it on to the end.

Simon Mannix

Well-travelled: Simon Mannix has already coached at Racing Metro and Munster after a distinguished playing career

RW: Describe Pau as a club?
SM: Pau has always been a very solid rugby base with a strong rugby culture. I knew if we could harness that then we could create something that would really gain momentum. It was also important that the players identified back with the town, that we played in a style that everyone would appreciate and carried ourselves off the field in a way that would make the town proud.

RW: What’s been the influence of veterans such as Damien Traille and James Coughlan?
SM: Damien Traille was an absolute leader in everything he did, on and off the field. Didn’t see a lot of him on the field because he had a few injuries but his presence and what it gives to players around him, you cannot underestimate that. James was an unknown coming over here, and possibly you could say he was an unsung hero in Irish rugby but his performances have been nothing short of outstanding, as have those of Jean Bouilhou, another of our experienced guys.

RW: Describe Pau’s recruitment policy?
SM: For me, first and foremost, it’s the off-field aspect, the human element. The fit has to be right. What environment has the player come from? What have they been exposed to in their careers? I’ve been trying to model the team with guys I can fully trust and guys who are prepared to run through the wall for you. To do that, you need to sit down with the players and get into their minds to see if they’re going to be the right fit.

Damien Traille

Guiding hand: 86-cap French centre Damien Traille has gone back to his home town to assist

RW: All Blacks Colin Slade and Conrad Smith have signed, any other big names in the offing?
SM: I’ve seen the CV of just about rugby player in the world! As has every director of rugby in the Top 14, I’m sure. The French market is very lively and it’s a tough sell at times, trying to sell players the future rather than what’s gone on in the past.

RW: What about the rumour that Francois Steyn might be playing for Pau next season?
SM: Francois Steyn is attracting the attention of everybody worldwide with his undoubted talent. I had a close working relationship with Francois at Racing and so people try and put two and two together, but often in the rumour market two and two can come out as five! We’ll wait and see what happens.

RW: What about the Pau pack, will they be able to cope with the Top 14 physicality?
SM: Yes, I’m more than confident that they will and remember that another of our big signings is Julien Pierre [the France & Clermont lock]. But I’m confident we have the players who can stand up to it physically. The big thing for me is that we must also show the rugby intelligence and the technique. That’s the big challenge, to improve as all-round rugby players and not just as physical monsters, because there must be a balance between technique and physicality.

Conrad Smith

Pass master: Conrad Smith will bring some star quality to Pau for next season

RW: You had a spell at Munster, how does the Pro12 compare to French rugby?
SM: It’s difficult to compare championships because of the constraints in France. In Ireland there’s now qualification for Europe but you’re still not playing with a gun to your head every week as some clubs do in France because of the economic fallout that results from relegation to the ProD2. That pressure makes for a huge difference in the type of rugby played because the stakes are so high. The style will be different because the pressures are different.

RW: What is your ambition for next season?
SM:  I want us to be competitive in every single game we play. It will be down to our ability to improve each week, to learn quickly and to adapt to what – for a lot of players – will be a new style of rugby because it’s a new level of rugby they’re being to exposed to. It’s going to be a huge challenge but this club has had nine years of waiting to get back to the top level and I’m sure the supporters are going to be putting in as much effort to support us as we are to show them this is a level in which we can exist.