The last time Phillipe Saint-André was seen in coaching it was leaving the Principality Stadium having lost to New Zealand 62-13 in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
Julian Savea was at his bulldozing best, scoring a hat-trick of tries as the All Blacks dismantled France in Cardiff.
Leaving his post with the French national team after that loss, Saint-André has since spent his time on television, radio and developing young talent across Europe with the PSA Academies. Tempted back to an everyday rugby environment, he says that he was waiting for the perfect job to come up prior to taking up his new post in Montpellier.
“To be honest, I wanted a break after the World Cup because, from being a player, I then stopped to coach,” Saint-André said. “I didn’t stop for nearly 18 years to coach Gloucester, I was Director of Rugby at Bourgoin, Sale Sharks, Toulon so I decided to take a break and I was working for TV, radio and I enjoyed it.
“But, for the last 12 to 15 months, the challenge to go back in the professional area, the excitement and opportunity started to interest me. For two years I have said no to everything. I was looking for options, but I wanted to take the time and Montpellier arrived. It is a big club, the chairman is very successful in business, but it is a young club in France with not too much history.
“He (Mohed Altrad) was looking for a Director of Rugby to organise, to structure, to develop the academy and that link between the Academy and professional areas, sponsors, back office and everything. I started full-time in mid-February and after the coronavirus I was very busy because since January, I was in charge to do the recruitment, to organise the academy, to recruit young players and also some bad things because I needed to save money because of the problem with coronavirus.”
As Saint-André said, Montpellier is only a young club. Just 34 years old, the side has sprung up through the French leagues and has been established in the Top 14 for 17 seasons now. Having still never lifted the Brennus Shield, the side has been known for some of the foreign players to have represented them over the years.
The likes of Augustin Creevy, Jim Hamilton, Nemani Nadolo and Rene Ranger have turned out for the side in the past but despite investing a lot in the team, all that Altrad has to show for it is two Top 14 runners-up medals, a European Shield and a Challenge Cup. With French spending being curtailed by the governing body, Saint-André is looking to Montpellier’s youth to take the club forward.
“I think French rugby realised the Top 14 is a very strong competition, but at one time is was possible to be French champions with 15 overseas players and it was wrong for French rugby and the French team,” Saint-André said. “Now you need to have 16 (French players) in each team sheet and you will grow that to 17 and maybe 18.
“Of course, you still need some world class players. We have signed some great players from overseas, but the key is to develop your young players, to develop your academy, to develop the link between your club and all the clubs around Montpellier because that is your base of supporters, of sponsors, of people who buy your jersey. It is very important to do big work with the young players at clubs around us.
“What we did, we signed a few of the best players because around Montpellier you have Narbonne, Beziers, Perpignan, you have a lot of clubs in the second division or Federale 1. It is very important that we invest with a professional structure, coaching staff in the academy to develop our players and for the first time this season, Montpellier have had seven or eight guys in the French squad.”
Whilst Montpellier’s end goal is of course to win domestic and European competitions, Saint-André says that consistency is the main thing that he is hoping for. In addition to this, he aims to continue the growth of his academy players with a view to letting them join the first team when they are ready.
“It is important for me to be consistent, if for the next two or three years, we can be in the top four or the top six, you can aim to win a trophy,” Saint-André said. “Secondly, to carry on to develop our young players and give them time to tell our players in the academy, to not be scared to pick them for the first team.“We still need to also get one or two great overseas players in the squad who can bring their experience, their knowledge and they can develop our team to be successful. The base is ethic, the hard work, to be humble and have humility, to develop all the players in our squad who are professional or in the academy.”
Last week, Montpellier announced the signings of two players from Premiership sides. Cobus Reinach, the Springbok scrum-half, will join from Northampton and the loan signing of Alex Lozowski from Saracens. Only due to be with the south French side for the one season, Saint-André is glowing in his praise of the Englishman.
“He is a fantastic footballer,” Saint-André said. “He can play fly-half, inside centre, outside centre, also full-back and wing sometimes. First, he is a fantastic player, second he is a good kicker and third he is very attached with Saracens and he has signed for two more years, but the year Saracens will be in the second division, for him I think it will be a great opportunity to come and see a new culture, to see a new league.
“I speak with him a lot and he is very motivated. He is a great professional and, for us also, he can play different positions. He has the habit to win with Saracens, so he can bring this experience, the winning culture. For one year he will not be picked for England, but he will go back to England because he wants to play for Eddie Jones at the next World Cup.
“For us to have one guy of this quality, this pedigree, is something that is very good. I think that is is a win-win. We have some young players around him and I think he can bring his knowledge, this experience and for me he is a great player.”