Kingsholm converted by the Saint

Dash of French thinking brings the insular community of Gloucester into a new world
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The Independent Online

The irony is rich. Gloucester, that most insular of clubs, are enjoying their best ever start to a season under the guidance of a man who, having launched the move which led to "the try from the end of the world", is himself from a different world; the one on the other side of the Channel that is.

The irony is rich. Gloucester, that most insular of clubs, are enjoying their best ever start to a season under the guidance of a man who, having launched the move which led to "the try from the end of the world", is himself from a different world; the one on the other side of the Channel that is.

Philippe Saint-André is French, but his nationality is irrelevant. He could just as well be from Down Under or Devon. The point is the Gloucester faithful are simply not renowned for their liberal attitudes. As far as the cherry-and-whites are concerned, local is good, foreign (anything outside the city) is not. Or at least that was the view until the apparition of the Saint.

Gloucester enter tomorrow's Tetley Bitter Cup confrontation against their old West Country rivals, Bath, sitting dizzily at the top of the Allied Dunbar Premiership One. The club's league position may be unusual, but the fervour generated by this tie is not. Saint-André knows it. "Bath and us are arch-enemies. It's the battle of the cities: beautiful versus austere. It promises to be an incredible match."

These are such heady times at Kingsolm, it is hard to believe the Frenchman's arrival was originally greeted with mixed emotions. "The end of last season was tough," recalled Saint-André. "But we're starting to see some positive changes. Apart from Ian Jones [one of the most capped New Zealand locks of all time], we haven't signed any big names, because I think rugby is primarily a team sport. A side of 15 stars, who play for themselves, can be a lot less performant than one with guys who want to improve."

The semi-final of the last World Cup, between New Zealand and France, being a case in point? "Yeah, absolutely. Many of those All Blacks would be in most people's world 15 but, on that day, they forgot the golden rule of rugby: I am nothing without the other 14. Well, that is exactly the mentality which I am trying to instill here."

Truth be told, it is not as if Gloucester have ever been a "big name" club anyway. "Maybe," Saint-André said, "but I've been trying to mix the cultures a bit. It's interesting. I have players from Gloucester, other parts of England, New Zealand, Australia and France. I want to take the best parts of each system and marry them with the experience which I accrued during my 15 years in French club rugby and my 10 years in the national team.

"I had a system in mind when I took over and although I haven't been able to change everything in six months, I've at least ensured we have a larger squad of 30 pros, who can all play in the first team. I needed 30 first-choice players, not 15."

The likes of Junior Paramore, Byron Hayward and Chris Yates have followed Jones and joined Gloucester's French revolution. But while their experience has been invaluable, Saint-André leaves no doubt as to who is patron . "The guys know that if they play well they stay in the team, but if they don't they join the subs' bench or spend a couple of weeks in their jacket and tie up in the stands. I hope my management style is helping the players stay physically and mentally fresh. We've done well but the championship is a marathon and we need to stay focused. The hard part starts now."

In fact, the huge task of turning the cherry-and-whites into contenders began in earnest last summer. After replacing the man who brought him to the club, Richard Hill, in February 1999, Saint-André spent the first three months of his tenure assessing his troops. Only then, when the season had ended, did he know the team and club structure needed rebuilding. "I virtually started from scratch," Saint-André said. "There were a number of players who I felt didn't fit into my plans. Getting rid of them wasn't easy. Many of them were Gloucester lads who were firm favourites with the crowd. One day I was playing with them and the next I was having to sack them. But that is professional rugby."

Saint-André's big summer clearout totalled 12 players, including Dave Sims, the then club captain and local hero. Not exactly the best way to endear yourself to the Gloucester fans. "I know," he acknowledged. "But I think I've proved my point. Of the 12 players who left, 11 found a club in the Second or Third Division, while one other [Mark Mapletoft] decided to leave when I asked him to play at full-back. Now, three months after joining Saracens, he's at 15.

"I may not be very good at English but I understand rugby. Had five of those players signed for Bath, Bristol, Leicester or Saracens, then I'd have to take a good long look at myself and wonder whether I was cut out for the job. People thought I was mad, but none of the guys who left have proved me wrong yet."

Gloucester's impressive run of results - they have won 15, drawn two and lost only one of their 18 competitive matches this season - will have pleased the new coach, but it is their style of play and professionalism which has most impressed Saint-André. The former France international, who won 69 caps for his country, including 34 as captain, has been surprised by the standards of the Premiership, lifted, he believes, by the large numbers of internationals plying their trade in England.

"The game here is one of quality and honesty," he said. "Players are very fit, very committed to training and don't cheat. It's refreshing." Saint-André does, however, warn against complacency. "Just because you win a few games doesn't mean you're a world beater. I'm striving for a team who are confident enough to have a go, but never selfish. Players who think only of their own backside don't interest me."

But though Saint-André is praiseworthy of the quality of English rugby on the field, he is more sceptical of the set-up behind the scenes. "French clubs have a more solid organisation," he said. "The most important thing is to bring money to the clubs. Serge Blanco has done it in France and Tom Walkinshaw [chairman of Gloucester and the Premiership clubs] is trying to implement that here. That can only be a good thing. But then Rob Andrew's plans to change the timetable of competitions are also right. Both are positive.

"I'm incredibly lucky to have somebody like Tom, who says to me 'Look, I know business and you know rugby, so I'll leave that side to you'." It is that confidence and freedom which persuaded Saint-André to sign a two-year extension to his contract. "This is my baby," he said. "Some questioned my appointment and my early decisions, but we're getting there and many of my ideas are passing through. The job is not finished, though. It takes longer than six months for a baby to become an adult." Tomorrow, his Gloucester boys might just come of age.