Rugby Union: Stade lure less than compelling

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The Independent Online
STADE FRANcAIS are probably the richest, certainly the most ambitious and very definitely the most glamorous outfit in France, but despite their super-cool Parisian rugby chic, they are not having things all their own way. Having been cruelly deprived of a highly significant Heineken Cup victory over Leicester last weekend, they now look certain to fail in their attempt to lure the former Tricolore captain Philippe Saint-Andre to Stade Jean Bouin as their new coach.

Saint-Andre indicated yesterday that he saw his immediate future in the Cotswolds rather than the Bois de Boulogne. "I am happy that the French people have not forgotten me," said the free-thinking wing from Romans, who led Les Bleus to their famous Test series victory in New Zealand in 1994. "But my contract here at Gloucester runs until May and I am very interested in doing two more years. Tom Walkinshaw [the Gloucester owner] seems happy and the crowd seem happy. I would like to finish my work at Kingsholm before moving elsewhere."

Saint-Andre is already in talks with Walkinshaw and expects the matter to be done and dusted inside a fortnight. "I think the team is more professional now; the players are beginning to understand the game plan I have put in front of them," he continued. "But I cannot achieve everything in six months. I need more time." It seems highly likely that Walkinshaw will grant him his wish, especially as Gloucester are threatening to take a sufficiently big stride up the Premiership hill this season to qualify for the 2000-2001 Heineken Cup.

It is an open secret that Stade Francais have identified Saint-Andre as their preferred replacement for the hugely successful Bernard Laporte, who has just replaced Jean-Claude Skrela as the French national coach. With Laporte still on board in an advisory capacity - a track-suited eminence grise, if you like - the Coupe de France holders might even have left the door open for their No 1 choice had he signalled a willingness to re-cross the Channel the moment his Gloucester contract expired. But a two-year renewal will force the Stade to seek an alternative and leave Saint-Andre contemplating the culinary deliights of the Kingsholm Chippy rather than the restaurants of St Germain de Pres.

Gloucester travel to Bristol for this weekend's West Country derby without their first-choice props, Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery, who are suffering from back and groin injuries respectively. But their front five is bolstered by Ian Jones, the long-serving All Black lock, who makes his Premiership debut in the second row. The southern hemisphere influence is strengthened by the inclusion of Chris Yates and Terry Fanolua at centre, Simon Mannix at outside-half and Elton Moncrieff at scrum-half. Serge Simon, the incendiary French loose-head prop who also happens to possess one of the brightest medical minds in Europe, plays his final game before returning to Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union sent a warning shot across the bows of the English club movement yesterday by reminding Walkinshaw and company that any agreement on a British League would have to be brokered under the auspices of the Six Nations Committee. Walkinshaw is busily attempting to sell the cross-border idea to his fellow club owners with the promise of big-money backing from an as yet unnamed source, but the RFU are concerned that he is operating outside the accepted decision-making framework. The union also wants to digest the recommendations of Rob Andrew's Club England working party on competitive structures before entering any public debate.

Still, it is not only Walkinshaw who is interested in establishing a ring-fenced elite at the top end of the game. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union has just denied First Division status to two provinces, Bay of Plenty and Nelson Bays, on the grounds that they fail to meet criteria on playing strength, financial viability and population. The provinces can probably address the first two problems, but the third seems just marginally out of their control.