As a Munster man, Peter O’Mahony knows all about adapting to new coaches, and the Ireland flanker believes a change in management will do France no harm at all in Paris this weekend.
The French dispensed with the services of head coach Guy Noves over the Christmas holidays after a disastrous tenure with the national team ended in a home draw to Japan at the U Arena last November.
Fellow veteran Jacques Brunel was quickly named as Noves’s replacement, but last week was his first chance to start working with his new charges on the training field at Marcoussis.
Hardly the ideal preparation for a Six Nations championship, never mind the ravages of gastroenteritis that are now sweeping through his camp.
Yet, changes in management are becoming old hat to O’Mahony, who as Munster captain has served three different bosses in as many seasons, from Anthony Foley, through Rassie Erasmus to Johann van Graan, who arrived mid-season in November, just in advance of the crucial Champions Cup home and away fixtures with Leicester Tigers.
New coach? No hassle. He believes too much may be read into the sudden change at the top of the French team coaching hierarchy.
“In some ways, I know if I was them, it would galvanise you,” O’Mahony said. “Everyone is questioning them: ‘They’re only in a few weeks together, how can they put it together?’
“But if I was them, it’s backs-to-the-walls stuff; that’s something you can feed off. It’s a different, more dangerous angle and we’ve got to understand it’s a different animal.
“At the end of the day, they’ve got opportunities. It’s international rugby and I know how important that is to me, you know how important it is to the French players and the French nation, how important Six Nations is to them. There’s a carrot there for them to perform and play well.
"Obviously, you want to go out and play well and perform in front of your home crowd. Everyone wants to do that.”
Facing a side playing under a new coach for the first time presents problems for the opposition, particularly when French rugby is unpredictable in the most stable of times. O’Mahony preferred to look at the common threads in past French teams.
“You go back to what you always look at. Obviously, the quality of player they have is top class. Then, the coach’s credentials are extremely good.
"There is a little bit of unknown, because they haven’t been together for a long time, but we know how difficult it is to go and play in France, how passionate they are about playing at home.
"How passionate they are about playing in the Six Nations and obviously the quality of player that they have, so we have to get things right. I think they’ve obviously got a very dangerous attack, you see it in the quality of the players they have.
"Their counter-attack is dangerous, just look at any of their club teams and they’re viciously dangerous from broken play.
“Their first-phase attack is always very good, as well, so we’re expecting a dangerous French team.”
Brunel has appointed a trio of recently retired players to his coaching team, with Jean Baptiste Elissalde the backs coach, Sebastien Bruno taking responsibility for scrums and former Clermont star Julien Bonnaire of particular interest to O’Mahony as Les Bleus’ new lineout coach.
“Bonnaire was an expert lineout operator and he’s done a good job with Lyon, coming from there into the French set-up now,” said the Ireland back-rower. “He’s got a huge amount of experience and a huge amount of experience in that area, and the French lineout is always very well run. You’d expect nothing less.”
One of France’s new threats could be 22-year-old back-rower Sekou Macalou of Stade Francais, a player earmarked by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt as a potential game breaker. O’Mahony concurred with that assessment.
“He is a very good lineout operator, he drives their linespeed, he gets in your face, he’s a good player. He’s a typically abrasive back-rower, along with the rest of the back rowers in their squad.”
Thankfully, Lions tourist O’Mahony feels in the right frame of mind and body to meet the challenge head on after a testing few months for province and country.
“My body feels good. There’s still an incredible competition here for back-row places, younger guys playing well. There’s a lot of guys playing well across the back row, six or seven of us up here. You’re always learning, you can never be complacent.
“That’s always been the way with Irish back-rowers, from a long time before I started until today; there’s always a massive competition.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved