There are some subtle and some not-so subtle shifts happening in France ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019. By James Harrington
Something jarred about the recent confirmation that Fabien Galthie – already unveiled as successor to Jacques Brunel as head coach of France – will join Les Bleus‘ coaching set-up for the Rugby World Cup.
It was no surprise that Galthie was on board for Japan. That notion had gathered unstoppable momentum since his name was first linked to a World Cup role in Midi Olympique during the 2019 Six Nations.
It was, rather, the nature of it. Brunel suddenly ended his post-Six Nations purdah to announce the news everyone already knew in twin interviews with regional newspaper Sud Ouest and on the FFR website.
It raised the obvious question of who will be in charge of France at the World Cup – the current coach or the future one.
“I have decided,” Brunel told ffr.fr, “to strengthen the staff with the arrival of two people, namely physical trainer Thibault Giroud and Fabien Galthie.”
His intended message was clear: this decision was his alone. Hard to miss, too, was the order of the names in that statement. But while Giroud is well known in conditioning circles, the latter remains the bigger name, the one everyone is interested in.
Brunel clarified further in Sud Ouest: “Even if we quickly made the decision to solicit Fabien Galthie, we were not sure he would come. It was Fabien or nobody … But I didn’t know if he was going to say yes.”
He may not have known, but everyone else did. It has been pretty much an open secret since mid-April, when, officially, the France coach’s final word on any addition to his World Cup staff was still the firm ‘non’ that dated back to the second game of the Six Nations.
Closing the door on Galthie having even a consulting role in the week after the 44-8 loss to England, Brunel said: “For me, it was never a question of that (bringing in another coach). I have a staff and I feel good in my staff.”
But FFR President Bernard Laporte was not singing from the same song sheet. Shortly after the Twickenham humiliation, with Galthie firmly on his mind, he said: “We need to bring even more skills to the management (set-up). We need to bring in other ideas…
“It’s not for me to say if Fabien can train with Jacques. It is Jacques who will probably work with the additional staff we are talking about. It must come from him.”
Brunel dragged his feet for nearly three months. Even after he finally bowed to the inevitable, he tried to stamp what remained of his authority on a situation he clearly didn’t want. “Fabien will come as an assistant, like the others, like Jean-Baptiste Elissalde,” he insisted. “He will bring something to the group – but without having a leading role.”
The message Brunel wants us to hear from all this is that he is in the man charge. The next head coach of France, who will officially be in charge of team morale in Japan, will be just another one of his assistants.
It is not the narrative that has emerged. Brunel was supposed to be head coach for the Six Nations after the World Cup, having signed a contract extension through to June 2020. That has been quietly cut short. He will now clear his desk at Marcoussis after the World Cup, and Galthie will be in charge when France face England, on February 2, 2020.
He was quickly installed as favourite to take over the France hotseat once Joe Schmidt – Laporte’s favoured choice ahead of the French media’s favourite Warren Gatland – was ruled out by a referendum on overseas coaches involving all FFR-affiliated clubs.
It’s a job Galthie has long coveted and groomed himself for. He enjoyed success as a coach with Stade Francais. Before it all went wrong, his Montpellier side frequently played breathtaking, must-watch rugby. Meanwhile, he was conducting a long-game public charm offensive as a pundit with Six Nations broadcaster France 2.
The high-pressure environment of Toulon, following a long break from coaching due to a drawn-out employment law-required exit from Montpellier, was the wrong job at the wrong time. He lasted scarcely one season and has been a perma-pundit ever since.
But it means he had the obvious advantage to the penny-poor FFR of not being tied to a club contract – unlike, say, Clermont’s Franck Azema, Toulouse’s Ugo Mola, or Lyon’s Pierre Mignoni – who will all, no doubt, be mentioned in new national coach dispatches as 2023 comes around.
Questions remain over Galthie’s man-management. His very public spat with France centre Geoffrey Doumayrou is not the only evidence of an ego that can be rubbed the wrong way.
It is, in part, why the team being built around him is long on charismatic and respected coaches: Laurent Labit, William Servat, Karim Ghezal and team manager Raphael Ibanez – responsible for smoothing the way between club and country – are preparing to move into offices at Marcoussis.
Brunel was a knee-jerk hire to replace Guy Noves in December 2018. There can be little doubt he agreed out of a sense of loyalty to former boss and long-term friend Laporte. But it was a job offer that he was long past his sell-by date for and one that he should have refused.
Less than 18 months later, he finds himself further along the lame-duck spectrum than any France coach in recent history, crying ‘I’m the boss’ into an uncaring, unlistening void.
An unidentified Top 14 coach told Rugbyrama: “The players are not stupid. They know that Galthie will be the future (France) coach. So, except for those who (are retiring) after Japan, they will try to be seen well by him … They will drive for him.”
That’s the truth of it, despite Brunel’s protestations. Galthie is, to all intents and purposes and in all but name, already the head coach of France.