Saint-André dusts off dirt and sets sights on a comeback

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The Independent Online

As a former French international, Philippe Saint-André has never been too sure what is coming next. The man who finished off that audacious move, started by Serge Blanco from under his own posts, in the Grand Slam decider at Twickenham in 1991 and then later captained the side who defeated the All Blacks with the memorable "try from the end of the world" in 1994, is not easily surprised. And yet, today Saint-André is wondering what has hit him.

One minute he was coaching Bourgoin, the next he was packing his belongings. Confused? So is Saint-André, who was sacked last week when the club chairman heard that he had applied for the Wales job, which will become available when Steve Hansen returns to New Zealand after the upcoming Six Nations. Saint-André must keep his counsel until a hearing next Thursday, but suffice to say that the former Gloucester coach appears to be the victim of a huge misunderstanding.

The story goes that, having recently been approached by an agent who was sounding out up-and-coming coaches around Europe, Saint-André agreed to an informal dinner with the Welsh Rugby Union. He did not, he insists, make the first move, let alone apply for the post. No matter. Bourgoin interpreted matters differently and dismissed him.

"Thankfully, I have possibilities," says a philosophical Saint-André, who won 69 caps for Les Tricolores, including 34 as captain. "I've enjoyed my time in France, but I'm ready for a new challenge now. I'd love to come back to England. I had five great years with Gloucester [first as a player and then as a coach] and, having tasted rugby back on home soil, I'd relish a return to the Zurich Premiership. I think the English championship is the best in Europe by a long way, because it is fast, physical and, above all, honest."

Saint-André, whose Glouc-ester team reached the Heineken Cup semi-finals in 2001, only to lose to the eventual winners, Leicester, adds: "What I loved about the game in England was that the players were very fit and very committed to training. That was very refreshing."

So far as Saint-André is concerned, it also explains why England are the reigning world champions. "English rugby took a long, hard look at itself in the mid-Nineties," he explains, "and then put in place a system that gave them a chance of improving. They have worked hard at it, and they thoroughly deserve their place at the top of the tree. I was there for the semi-final between France and England, and I have to say that they gave us a bloody good lesson. That day, England demonstrated that they had versatile players, who could adapt to any conditions. That, more than anything else, was the difference between the two teams. In the rain, England proved they had more than a Plan A. France didn't."

Saint-André recalls how he sat in the stands of the Telstra Stadium for the final between England and Australia and was greatly moved. "It was a truly momentous occasion," he says. "I found the camaraderie between both sets of supporters incredible, and I think the match was even more breathtaking.

"In many ways, I felt that England's victory in Australia was a triumph for the whole of the northern hemisphere. Seeing England lift the trophy, especially in Australia's back garden, has given us all hope."

England have also set the standards. Beating Sir Clive Woodward's men promises to be that much tougher this season. "It was difficult before," Saint-André admits, "but now that England are number one it's going to be even more demanding."

So is this year's Six Nations' Championship even worth playing? "Of course," the Frenchman says, "because the other teams have a duty to accept the challenge. England are the team to beat, and it's not easy, but in sport you always have a chance.

France play England and Ireland at home, which will be a huge advantage. If Bernard [Laporte, the French coach] can find a player good enough to fill the shoes of Fabien Galthié [the scrum-half and captain, who retired following the semi-final defeat by England], then we could cause an upset."

Saint-André also believes that much will depend on the world champions' frame of mind. "If they have managed to put their great achievement Down Under to one side and to focus entirely on the European scene," he says, "then I think they will be unstoppable.

"But if a few of the players are still dreaming of Australia, then it could be more difficult for them. Being the best is an honour, but it can also be a burden. I know from experience that life is a lot easier when people don't expect too much from you."