As part of Fifteen Rugby’s new partnership with PSA Academies we spoke to the founder, and the man after whom the academies are named, Philippe Saint-André.
Readers will probably fall into two categories, younger readers who remember him best for his time as the French national coach from 2012 through to the end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and readers of an older vintage who remember the dashing winger who won 69 caps for France, captaining them for 34 and being the skipper of the last side, of any nation, to win a series in New Zealand back in 1994. Not to mention various successful coaching positions, including spells at Gloucester, Toulon, and a spell at Sale that led to a Premiership title in 2006.
It is clear that those two experiences with France, as a player and a coach, are what have shaped his philosophy behind PSA Academies, which he began following his departure from the French national side in 2015.
In his days as a player France were known for the flair and passion that so many of us yearn for a return to yet in the last decade or so France have become a turgid, inconsistent side. Speaking about PSA Academies those themes shine through “I started it to develop young players, their skills, to play with spirit and passion using a mix of different coaches and visions. My experience coaching France showed me that the development of young players was not the best it could be.”
Young players are clearly an area of passion, and with over 800 players aged 10-18 passing through his academies last year, and anyone can sign up, the opportunity is clear. “It is living like a professional for a week. We introduce new technologies and alongside rugby we have language development and plenty of off-field activities. We have locations at St Joseph’s College and Pangbourne College, as well as around the world, Tignes in France and we are introducing one in America with their new league starting. It’s a huge passion for me.”
The success of France at last year’s World Rugby U20 Championships (they beat England in the final) and their U20 6 Nations title are clearly a source of joy, yet one of immense frustration at the fact that during his time at the helm young players simply were not getting opportunities.
“I am really pleased (for the likes of Demba Bamba, Romain Ntamack, and Jordan Joseph). For ten years young players did not get to play in the Top 14. When I was coaching France, Toulon only had two French players in their starting XV. When Toulon and Clermont met in the European Champions Cup final there were just eight players I could pick. It was a big, big problem.”
“Now it is changing, winning the World Rugby U20 Championships, brining in the JIFF regulations (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) so 14 players must be French qualified (in each Top 14 matchday 23), and some great coaching in the youth teams and Espories. We have woken up but ten years too late, we are behind England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and the Top 14 for too long was all about money. The shop window is better now. I have a feeling at the next World Cup (France 2023) we will be quite competitive.”
It is clear that a lot has changed, and not just in the sense of giving younger players a chance, the players are now getting more time together as a national squad.
“The players stayed together for 2 weeks before and the duration of the Six Nations. When I was there after three weeks the players went back to their clubs.”
“The 2015 quarter final was a big turning point. 75% of the Top 14 wingers were Fijian, there were just three French tightheads starting regularly. I was picking players that were not their clubs’ first choice.”
Quickly though he returns to his key theme, giving young players opportunities; “It was not all negative, Jonny Wilkinson was good for everyone and showed that if you want to be the best you need to be professional. But when 20-25 of your squad are overseas there is no space for young players.”
“We killed ten years of young players. The attitude was ‘we don’t want to wait to win, we’ll buy the best’, now we have rules but we should have done it in 2010. We are 9th in the world, we have never been so low, we are behind Fiji. It is a big wake up, we didn’t have any vision.”
Fiji, of course, who beat France back in the autumn to take away that feeling of positivity that Les Bleus had looked as though they were building. A result that Saint-André describes as “a big shock”. Further part of that wake up call he described before.
The Six Nations looms large, can France turn around from that Fiji defeat? “The first game will be key and after that anything can happen. The key will be Wales on Friday. 9 and 10 will be Parra and Lopez, they know each other so well.”
“I love it (the Six Nations). I think Ireland v England is the final in the first weekend.” He is certainly not alone there, hype for that fixture is already in overdrive with the England coaching staff doing nothing to dilute the tension, with defence coach John Mitchell saying he expects Ireland to ‘bore the sh*t’ out of England.
The Six Nations of course is just the start of a very special 2019, which will see Japan host the Rugby World Cup in the Autumn, with Northern Hemisphere rugby seemingly the dominant force unusually, could this be the chance for just the second northern hemisphere winner or are New Zealand set for three in a row?
“Of Course New Zealand are good but we (the Northern Hemisphere) start with 2, 3, and 4 in the world and Scotland have never been so strong. It’s amazing and will be amazing for the World Cup.”
“New Zealand will be tough to beat but Ireland play so well and their depth is stronger than ever, you don’t win with just 15. Wales are funny, their clubs struggle but the National side is doing very very well. England (last season) had problems because of the Lions, players were too tired. For France our players are playing less rugby than before, I think it will be competitive.”
No conversation with Saint-André can pass, especially at this time of year, without mention of that try against England in the 1991 Five Nations. Arguably the greatest try in Championship history (have a look below if you haven’t seen it before!).
“It was an amazing time with amazing players. Guys like Blanco, Sella, Camberabero. England were kicking six or seven penalties in those days while we were scoring tries. Now it’s the reverse!”
Those names just trip off tongue, legends not just of French rugby but of the global game. Little wonder that a few years later they travelled to New Zealand and won. Did they know how special it was at the time?
“It was great but I hope it will happen again. It’s funny, I had 69 caps and 34 as captain with a 77% win rate and I beat New Zealand three times in a row. I just thought it was normal but then as a coach I lost five out of five and against Ireland I won 8/8 but as a coach I drew 2 and lost 3. But what I like is that there is as much passion, people traveling, and the atmosphere is still as great as when I played.”
It was indeed a special time for French rugby, but now French rugby faces a crisis. Having seemingly finally started to reform their thinking on youth players and player welfare, France has been rocked in the last eight months by the deaths of four young players in rugby related incidents.
It has become a major talking point even at a governmental level in France, and the FFR are presenting to World Rugby later this year with some proposals formed off the back of these tragedies.
Saint-André has thoughts on what needs to be changed “We need to stop neck high tackles and it is the responsibility of the referees, they need to give red cards straight away because kids watch it on TV and they copy it. One problem in France, and the president will have to change the rules, we have 17-18 year olds playing players of 22/23. Espoires (academy players) are playing players four years up. The difference in size and physicality is huge. In rugby you need to play in your age. Good coaching when you are young is key.”
Here it comes back to PSA Academies, where he can directly influence that coaching of young players.
“It motivates me more to be involved in PSA Academies. We need to coach techniques in the tackle, shoulder and leg strength and positioning. You need to learn these things early. So many professionals get head injuries through poor technique. At Sale I we had Richard Wigglesworth and even though he was just 19 we were confident because he had good technique and even now it is hard to remember him having had any problems.”
One thing is obvious speaking to Saint-André, and it is something that will be clear to those who watched him play in those glorious French sides of the 1990’s – passion. Passion in particular for young players across the globe. Passion too for France and French rugby. At times towards the end of his tenure with the French national side he cut a forlorn figure. Listening to him now it seems clear why, it comes across as a battle against a Federation that was ‘ten years too late’ in its attitude towards young players.
Now Saint-André aims to give young players across the globe as much opportunity and quality coaching as possible. Perhaps it won’t be too long before England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, charged with players that have experienced a camp with PSA Academies, are following his lead from ’91, running in scores from behind their own posts. Wouldn’t that be a treat for all.
The 2019 PSA Rugby Academies are now live for booking at www.psaacademies.com. Book your place on one of the fantastic high performance programmes in the UK, Ireland or France and get up to 10% off when quoting ‘15RUGBYOFFER’. Maximize your young players rugby potential this Summer!