Lyon coach Tim Lane talks to Rugby World about the challenges of the Top 14, the fall of French flair and a potential Aussie exodus

TIM LANE is one of the world’s most experienced and respected coaches – and one of its most travelled. After winning three caps in the centre for Australia in the 1980s the 54-year-old began his coaching career with Manly. He soon joined the Wallaby staff and was assistant coach when they won the 1999 World Cup. The following year he had his first stint in France, guiding Clermont to the final of the 2000-01 Top 16, and he subsequently had spells with Brive (2006) and Toulon (2007).

Lane, a member of the Springbok backroom staff from 2001 to 2003, coached Georgia to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and he was appointed head coach of Lyon at the start of 2013-14. His first season ended in triumph with Lyon the runaway winners in Pro2 and returning to the Top 14 after two years out of the top flight.

With the new French season kicking off on Friday 15 August, Lane talks all things Top 14 with Rugby World

Rugby World: How pleased are you with Lyon’s pre-season preparations?

Tim Lane: They have been very good. We had our first warm-up game at the weekend against Oyonnax (Lyon won 12-7) and though it rained heavily for most of the first half we picked up a lot of positives, particularly our lineout and our defence. Obviously it will be a step up for a lot of blokes because the step up in standard from Pro2 to Top 14 is big. But a lot of our new recruits have played Top 14 before.

RW: What are the biggest differences between the Pro2 and the Top 14?

TL: We’re focusing a lot in training on the breakdown and the physicality because in the Top 14 a lot of sides contest the breakdown out wide and send more numbers in over the ball. Last season we scored 112 tries in 30 games and didn’t shoot for penalty goals much. But the Top 14 will be tighter so if there are three points on offer we’ll take them, though we’ll still look to attack as much as possible.

RW: Fijian winger Mosese Ratuvou was Pro2’s top try-scorer last season with 21 in 25 matches but he scored just once when Lyon were last in Top 14…

TL: Three years ago Lyon didn’t win many games and he didn’t get much opportunity to score tries. But I’m confident in him, as I am in all the players.

George Smith

Wise Wallaby: George Smith in action for Australia against the Lions last summer

RW: Why did you sign George Smith?

TL: He’s such a skilful player, he knows where to be at the right time and he leads by example. He’s a back in a back-rower’s body and he’s already contributing a lot in training, helping the development of some of our younger back-rows. We’re lucky he chose us.

RW: When you recruit for the Top 14 what do you look for in players?

TL: We look at rugby ability but also if they’re decent blokes and whether they’ll adapt (to France). That’s important because I’m striving to create a good culture and a happy group here. I think some Fijians and South Africans, the real Afrikaners, can struggle, unless there are two or three of them. I’m not knocking them but that’s just the way it is because they prefer speaking Afrikaans. That’s why Coenie Basson (Lyon’s South African lock) is so important for us. He speaks fluent English, French and Afrikaans and is a great help in assimilating some of the new blokes in the club.

Coenie Basson

Key figure: South African lock Coenie Basson’s language skills are important at Lyon

RW: Biarritz and Perpignan relegated, Toulouse no longer a major force. Is there a changing of the guard in French rugby?

TL: There is change but I think the ‘Big Six’ – Racing, Montpellier, Castres, Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont – will still be the Big Six this season. I think the change is the competitiveness of the other eight clubs who are more pushing up more strongly. It’s no longer the case – touch wood! – that the newly-promoted sides go straight back down to Pro2. I was very surprised that Perpignan went down last season but less so for Biarritz because they’ve been treading water for a few seasons.

RW: How has the Top 14 changed since your first spell with Clermont?

TL: I think that from 2000 to the 2003 World Cup the focus was much more on attack. Since 2003 it’s steadily been more about defence, what I call ‘Three Point Rugby’, sides taking penalty kicks from 50 metres instead of kicking into the corner and looking to score tries.

RW: What prompted this change in philosophy?

TL: There is more pressure on coaches to win now and that produces conservative rugby. France used to be famous for its flair but we don’t see much flair these days. It’s a great shame because you want to see teams and players express themselves.

RW: So the decline of the France national team is not to do with the number of overseas players in the Top 14?

TL: A lot of people blame the number of foreigners in the Top 14 but that’s a smokescreen. It’s more the attitude of the coaches who are creating a risk-free game. I believe it would encourage more attacking rugby if the Top 14 awarded a bonus point for scoring four tries rather than the present system (whereby a bonus point is awarded only to a winning team that scores three tries more than their opponents).

Tim Lane

Golden trio: coaches Tim Lane, Rod Macqueen and Jeff Miller after Australia’s 1999 World Cup win

RW: Do you think there will be exodus of Australian players to the Top 14 after the 2015 World Cup?

TL: Yes, there will be an exodus because I’ve been having a lot of CVs land on my desk in the last few weeks, and there are some surprising ones, not just from Australia.

RW: What can Australia do to stop a player drain?

TL: If I were them (ARU) I would do what South Africa do and allow four to five key players to play overseas and still represent the Springboks. There are some good young players in Australia who have recently committed for the next two years, but if the ARU maintain the rule that to play for Wallabies you have to play in Australia it will damage us because we could lose the likes of (Quade) Cooper, (Israel) Folau and (Will) Genia.

RW: Finally, your ambitions for the season?

TL: Staying up is the priority. Over the next two or three years we want to build a bigger and better support and sponsorship. Our stadium is being redeveloped, increasing the capacity (to 11,805). We got good crowds last season but I think they were spectators more than supporters. When you go to a place like Bourgoin you see the fans crying and yelling their nuts off for 80 minutes. Our crowd applaud politely, though in our last few games as we closed in on the title they got a lot more behind us and made more noise. Hopefully we’ll see that in the Top 14 because the crowd can really act like a 16th man in France.

Don’t miss our Top 14 preview in the September issue of Rugby World, on sale Tuesday 5 August.