French clubs rule the roost, says Steve Meehan
After a mixed time at Bath, the Australian coach opens up to Chris Hewett on why Gallic cash is king and why English sides are struggling to compete
If England have managed only two chargedown tries in four hours of Six Nations rugby, neither of them likely to be remembered for longer than half a minute, it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of an age in which the rugby played by the vast majority of Premiership clubs is about as thrilling and thought-provoking as a plate of boiled cabbage. Under the circumstances, it is tempting to ask where the most imaginative attacking coach of recent seasons might be these days. The answer? Back home in Australia, studying for a degree in psychology and awaiting another shot at the big time.
Steve Meehan left Bath at the end of last season, having seen his position as head coach eroded from within by a management who not only recruited Sir Ian McGeechan as performance director over the Queenslander's head but also gave the great Lions sage increasing amounts of hands-on responsibility in the day-to-day preparation of the team. The club did their best to present Meehan's departure in a good light, but everyone with eyes to see knew it was a dark business.
Nine months on, he has put the Bath experience behind him and drawn a line. Unfortunately, the Recreation Ground faithful might be forgiven for wondering whether their club have done something similar with their attacking game. Under Meehan, the West Countrymen brought something new to the Premiership mix, with a superior brand of cutting-edge rugby that was as inventive in conception as it was technically proficient in execution. Now he is gone, they are being left for dead by Harlequins and Gloucester, the only distinctive acts in an otherwise uniform top flight.
"I remember a Bath player who had been called into the England camp asking some of the blokes from other clubs what it was like facing us," Meehan recalls with an air of satisfaction. "They told him it was difficult because they didn't know what to expect from us, what we might do from one moment to the next. Contrast that with a direct experience of mine, when I found myself sitting next to a very senior member of the England coaching team at a Premiership get-together at the start of last season. During a breakout session, I pushed the idea that it was perfectly possible, even at the most crucial stages of a competition, for a team to achieve its goals by actually playing some rugby. He looked at me and shook his head. 'No,' he said. 'When it really matters, you grind it out.' I've never seen it that way, and never will. Jeez, if you're going to lose, at least lose on your own terms.
"You hear all this stuff about teams having to go negative if they're in the bottom half of the table and are worried about relegation. That argument is overplayed. The way I see it, teams might not be in that position in the first place if players were given a little more freedom to think their way through games, to play what they see. We went through it at Bath one year: finding ourselves in a relegation scrap at Christmas, we decided to play our way out of it and made the Premiership semi-finals four months later."
Few coaches are better placed to assess the balance of rugby power between England and France ahead of next weekend's Six Nations meeting in Paris. Before Meehan began his five-year stint on the banks of the River Avon, he helped drive Stade Français to three French championship finals and a Heineken Cup final – first alongside the South African strategist Nick Mallett, now a candidate for the red-rose job; then with the former Tricolore scrum-half Fabien Galthié.
"The balance has shifted towards France, particularly at club level," he says. "When I first coached there with Nick, there were maybe five teams out of 16 who really counted. Below them there was a middle group who could give you a run for your money on a good day and a bottom group who didn't matter. If you look at it now, the top league is incredible. How can teams like Biarritz and Bayonne be down at the bottom, with all their cattle? If somebody starts running those Basque sides better than they're currently being run, it will be even more competitive.
"When I look at Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne, I'm astonished at the power they're able to wield. Go back 15 years, when players like Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar first came to play in England, and you'd have to say they did very well for themselves financially. That has all changed. Even if the big French clubs are paying half the money they're reputed to be paying, they're in a different place to the English teams. When you take into account the exchange rate for sterling, the salary cap in the Premiership and the fact that some clubs are struggling for crowds, you have to think that at European level, the English are struggling to compete. In Heineken Cup terms, I don't see it getting any easier for them in the near future.
"But at international level, there is no reason why England can't make some significant progress. We haven't seen a whole lot from them in the attacking sense, but they are certainly a side with some ticker. And I can see quite a few players in this present group reaching a peak around the time of the next World Cup [in 2015] – people like Chris Robshaw (the Harlequins flanker recently installed as red-rose captain), who has earned some stripes with his club and is now developing into a good Test performer. Whoever gets his hands on that full-time coaching job will be excited by the possibilities, and rightly so."
That man will not be Meehan, although there are a number of good judges in English rugby who believe Twickenham could do worse than hire him as the national side's attack coach. For the time being, he must make do with some age-group work at his old school, Marist Brothers College in the Ashgrove suburb of Brisbane, and a little talent-spotting for the Australian Rugby Union. That and his psychology degree, the pursuit of which will intrigue those at Bath who did not dream of questioning his technical or tactical acumen but sometimes accused him of failures on the man-management front.
"One of the beauties of taking time out is giving yourself an opportunity to reflect," he says. "How was my man-management? That's an interesting one. Looking back, there are definitely things I'd have done differently if I'd known what I know now. But I do have a beef in the sense that no one ever came out and said to me: 'Steve, this is what's happening and it's a problem.' No one ever gave me a precise example of what was meant to be wrong. Could I have improved in certain areas? Of course. Most of us can improve somewhere. But I'd have preferred it if people had come up to me with their problems and spoken to me face to face."
Meehan believes he still has much to give. "For a start, I think the psychology studies will add a dimension to what I do the next time I coach at a senior level," he says. "It's an interesting subject – one that to a large extent, rugby has yet to grasp. I also think that, strategically, I've matured a little over the last few months: I might be a bit more structured in the way I look at certain situations now." And where might he bring that maturity to bear? "I don't consider anywhere to be off-limits," he replies. "A Super 15 challenge would be interesting, but I spent nine years in Europe – four in France, five in England – and I feel I have an understanding of that scene. I want another crack at it. The thing that burns in me is the thought that I could do a better job."
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