Having just been crowned French Pro D2 champion for the second time in four years, the former Stade Toulouse coach and France’s XV strikers are drawing the balance sheet of the upcoming Top 14 semi-finals here. For him, if Toulouse and the UBB are favorites, the work done by Pierre-Henry Broncan in Castres and Philippe Saint-André in Montpellier stands out.
First of all, were you surprised to see that Stade Tolousain dominated so much of its play-off match against Stade Rochelais, the recently crowned European champion?
To tell the truth, I am one of those who believe in the series, in the psychology of the moment. La Rochelle had been shaken twice last year and had been deprived of the title. The Rochelais had just scored a first box with the title of European Champion. I really thought it might be his year. But I also know the house of Toulouse well. I know that for the last three years, the people of Toulouse have worked hard on their roots, their history, their identity. And it’s always terrible to face an angry team. This team must have felt humiliated for being stripped of its European title. He had taken a real lesson, a real lesson, in the semi-final against Leinster. And I knew this team would be great in this playoffs. As it will be in the semifinals. The Stade Toulousain did not exploit La Rochelle by strategy, but by duels, by clashes. And it’s nothing. The Rochelais have lost rugby, we had the impression that they were throwing the ball and that no one wanted to go to the match. When the Stade Toulousain spits fire like this, it is very difficult to beat them.
Can this anger last?
The motivation, everything was found against La Rochelle. There was harassment and a question of prestige at stake. This will be different. It’s a derby, two different approaches. The talent on the one hand with incredible pride, on the other an incredible mood and defensive organization. But not only that. Castres is so much more. You don’t finish first in the Top 14 just to be brave. This is a shortcut. And we must emphasize here the remarkable work done by Pierre-Henry Broncan. This semifinal, I am convinced, will be a brutal shock. For me, Toulouse is the favorite against the talent that floods this team. When you have Antoine Dupont, it’s easier. But we can’t stop in front of him. I was struck by the rage of the Arnold brothers against La Rochelle or the performance of Elstadt. Because Stade Toulouse is not just about talent. It is mainly forwards who hit hard. But if both teams are brutal, I think Toulouse have a little more talent to win.
Isn’t Castres the worst rival in terms of the Stade Toulousain game?
No, I rather have the feeling that these two semifinals are like Siamese twins. On the one hand, the UBB has the energy and talent that reminds me of the Stade Tolousain; on the other, Montpellier is a team of warriors, real athletes very well organized in defense. There are also South African roots in this Montpellier team with a very present kicking game and a very dense defensive backdrop. I get the feeling that there really is the same balance of power in these two semifinals.
Whose advantage is it?
Toulouse and UBB seem better armed. And it would surely be the most colorful poster of the final. But beware, I have immense respect for what Pierre-Henry Broncan is doing with Castres. We do not emphasize it enough, but it is extraordinary what has been done. Like the dominance of Montpellier this season. When we know where this club comes from, we must not underestimate the work of Philippe Saint-André and his staff.
Will freshness matter?
Personally, I prefer my team to have a weekend break before the semifinals. I have experienced this season with Bayonne. In view of the last 25 minutes of these two semi-finals, it is still an advantage not to have played last weekend. When you have time for analysis, recovery, it is appreciable.
You talked about the anger that the Stade Tolousain encouraged during the play-off against La Rochelle. But is it likely that the tension that has arisen in the changing rooms of Bordeaux makes the UBB more dangerous or is it a risk of implosion?
I don’t have the experience of Christophe Urios who has already achieved great things in various clubs, with sometimes limited means. It is the mark of a great manager. From the outside, I get the impression that Christophe writes a new story every week to prepare his players. He probably acted knowingly because he felt this was the way to go. It can be tricky, but it is strong. What is certain is that in order to move from a disappointment to a successful performance, there is necessarily a phase of reconstruction that goes through anger, then a phase of sacred union. I wish them well because it would be a shame to ruin what has been done, especially when you look at the talent that is in this team. Self-destruction by an ego issue would be unfortunate. Frankly, I trust the experience of Christophe Urios, who no longer has much to prove, and the character of the players on this team.
Instead, the MHR has been very low-key for several weeks. You know Philippe Saint-André well for having worked with him for four years at the helm of the XV of France. What’s she doing?
Its great strength is to know people well. He was able to rebuild the foundations, a state of mind, choose a good staff. His recruitment was relevant. He was looking for Mercer on the third center line to bring something special, Garbisi to the opening who knew how to take control. It has also retained its South African roots with Serfontein in the center which is the repository of this “made in Spingboks”. Montpellier is really that Siamese brother of Castres with a fantastic mood, ultra-responsible players. I have the impression that Philippe left power to the players in a very well defined framework. Montpellier is perhaps the best backbone of these semifinals.
Precisely, the absence of Cobus Reinach will not be harmful?
I’m afraid … The quality of his footwork or the pressure he puts on his opponent will be lacking in Montpellier. Without insulting who will replace him, Montpellier lost big. But beware of this team anyway. Although UBB and Toulouse are favorites, these two teams will have to cross the barbed wire line raised by Castres and Montpellier.