When France’s new coach sets forward his plans for the national team, he does not speak of ambitions. Guy Noves has been around long enough to know he has a duty to the cause of picking up the pieces of his national team.
The man who presided over the great Toulouse teams of the 1990s and 2000s, leading them to four Heineken Cups and nine French titles during an astonishing 22-year reign is, on his 62nd birthday today, preparing for his debut as an international head coach with the mission of restoring pride in a once great rugby nation.
Noves comes to the Six Nations with impeccable credentials and the respect of rival coaches. He is lone among them in leading the country of his birth and has arguably the biggest job in front of him in rebuilding a team that has in the past four years under previous head coach Phillipe Saint-André stumbled from bad to worse.
Saint-André’s predecessor Marc Lievremont had been deemed to have spectacularly lost the plot during his tenure, yet on his watch the French somehow managed to win the Grand Slam in 2010 and reach the World Cup final a year later.
When former French wing Saint-Andre left Toulon for the national post, he seemed poised to take Les Bleus further along the road to finally lifting the Webb Ellis Cup yet Saint-André’s France went downhill and his last game at the helm was that 62-13 defeat to a rampant New Zealand in last October’s World Cup quarter-final.
Noves will be in command for France’s first game since that dark day at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when his new charges host Italy at Stade de France tomorrow afternoon and having begun his new job last November, he has made it perfectly clear that he wants to hear no more about what had preceded him a couple of weeks earlier.
“We have to stop talking about that game,” Noves says. “If we keep talking about how France lost by a big amount, it’s tiresome. We are looking to the future. These players have all had success with France or with their clubs. We had an off-day and when that happens, you have to bounce back.
“Time will tell if the players understand really where we want to go. It would be presumptuous to say in a couple of days that we have transformed the game the way we want to do. With my staff, over the last few weeks, we’ve tried to present the game-plan to the players, so they can take it in as quickly as possible and apply it on the field.
“If they can do that, we want them to express all their personality, so the French fans can be proud of them. I say this with a lot of humility. We have a long way to go but it’s not an ambition, we have a responsibility. We know it will be very difficult.”
Noves may wish to wipe the last World Cup from the record books but he is not prepared to jettison all that went before. He has effectively ended the Test careers of any player not likely to reach the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 but retained the services of forwards coach Yannick Bru and a host of players who underperformed for the previous regime and whom he believes are simply in need of a better, less restrictive game-plan, one which will make the supporters proud again and enable the players to fulfil their obvious potential, now they have been freed from their tactical straitjacket.
The veteran coach has an eye on the future, clearly, but like Joe Schmidt, chooses to concentrate on the here and now.
“I am not thinking of the (next) World Cup because, who knows, I might not even be coach by then. What you must do is think of the next game and that’s what we’re training for. Then we’ll think of the game that comes after that.
“You could say maybe we look for three wins to start with, then a Grand Slam the year after but that’s what you are saying.
“I’m looking at each game and from the first match, whatever its result, win or lose, we’ll look on that first match and we’ll improve and at the end of the tournament we’ll take stock of what happened.”
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