Saint-André on mission to convert United's city to oval ball

The new Sale coach explains to <i>Chris Hewett </i>how he believes his fervour for the game can inspire players and public to great heights this season
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The Independent Online

The Gospel according to Saint-André is not, as many in this country appear to believe, the work of a crazy man; in fact, the revelations contained within it are not even faintly radical. It might be convenient for English rugby folk to pigeonhole the celebrated scorer of the "try from nowhere" - against England at Twickenham in 1991 - and the architect of the "try from the end of the world" - against New Zealand in 1994 - as a wild-eyed romantic with a grip on sporting reality best described as occasional, but convenience does not always take account of the relevant facts. Now in his second stint with a Premiership club, the former French captain would like some of these facts to be known.

The Gospel according to Saint-André is not, as many in this country appear to believe, the work of a crazy man; in fact, the revelations contained within it are not even faintly radical. It might be convenient for English rugby folk to pigeonhole the celebrated scorer of the "try from nowhere" - against England at Twickenham in 1991 - and the architect of the "try from the end of the world" - against New Zealand in 1994 - as a wild-eyed romantic with a grip on sporting reality best described as occasional, but convenience does not always take account of the relevant facts. Now in his second stint with a Premiership club, the former French captain would like some of these facts to be known.

When Philippe Saint-André appeared in front of the media last weekend after guiding his new team, Sale, to an eye-catching victory over Leicester at Edgeley Park, he confronted his accusers. "Some of you think I am mad," he informed them. "Yet Trevor Woodman and Sébastien Chabal and Robert Todd have followed me here from other clubs. Are they mad too?" Then a pause, followed by a stinging pay-off line. "I hope you enjoyed the rugby we played today" No hint of a Gallic shrug here. This was fighting talk.

Three days later, Saint-André was in self-deprecatory mood as he cast his eye over a squad going about their preparatory business in the well-appointed surroundings of Stockport RFC, which Sale have commandeered as their new training base. "For the first time in a while, I tried to run with the players," he said, sadly. "It was no good; I am now officially too old for such things. The best news is that this place is only four miles from my new house, so maybe I can jog home. That would make me feel better."

If truth be told, the 37-year-old is feeling pretty damned good about himself already. As director of rugby at one of the least fashionable, albeit most ambitious, of the 12 Premiership contenders - only Leeds and Worcester have less glitz about them - he believes he has finally set down roots in fertile ground where his rugby philosophy might blossom into full flower. He enjoyed his five years at Gloucester, as both player and coach, and had his moments back in France with Bourgoin, where he surfaced after leaving Kingsholm in mid-campaign early in 2002. But it is here at Sale that he senses a chance of fulfilment.

This is not because he has access to a stellar back division - Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Steve Hanley, Charlie Hodgson, Bryan Redpath - but because he has been given both the freedom and the spending power to rebuild the Sale pack. That big forwards win rugby matches is first among Saint-Andre's facts of life. "I played as a wing, so you must know how excited I am to work with backs of such quality," he said. "But throughout my career, my best friend was a prop. This is my mentality. In France, we have a saying: forwards earn the money, backs spend it. Without the forwards, the backs have nothing.

"Of course, this is the real tradition of French rugby. People look at the great French teams of the past and talk about the centres doing this and this" - he flicks his hands like a Didier Codorniou or a Jo Maso, summoning rose-tinted memories of Tricolore extravagance - "but when I was in the Test team alongside some of our best players, from Berbizier and Charvet and Camberabero to Sella and Lagisquet and Blanco, we wouldn't see the ball for 50 minutes. Why? Because we had to wait for people like Pascal Ondarts to do the bad things in the forwards. Without these bad things, there is no rugby.

"In Gloucester and Bourgoin, this was already the culture: big forwards, big scrums, a tough approach. At Sale, it is different; the culture has to be created. Before I agreed to come here last March, I asked for videos of all the games from the start of the season. I looked at everything very carefully, not once but several times, before making my decision. I could have gone to Pau, and there was an offer from Japan. But the opportunity to construct a side capable of competing with the best in Europe was too tempting. Besides, I like the Premiership. I like England."

On the face of it, there is no reason why Saint-André should feel any fondness for either. Having taken Gloucester to the heady heights of a Heineken Cup semi-final in 2001 - a match against Leicester they might easily have won - in the course of salvaging their reputation as a powerhouse of the English game, he found himself being sniped at and briefed against by influential Kingsholm figures who had become suspicious of his methods and exasperated by what they saw as his capricious behaviour. Eventually, the club's owner, Tom Walkinshaw, decided he should go, having previously described him as "the best coach in the history of this club, by a country mile".

Few were willing to offer an explanation at the time, although Rob Fidler, the long-serving lock who now plays for Bath, broke cover recently by saying: "Philippe was good in that he could spot players, but communication was a problem for him. He had ideas in his head, but the issue was getting those ideas across. You didn't know accurately where you were going, or how you were getting there." The well-worn tale of Saint-Andre referring to, and occasionally addressing, the Kingsholm groundsman as "Man With Beard" for season after season is perhaps instructive in this context.

Saint-André himself accepts a degree of blame. "Maybe at Gloucester there were too many French coaches," he admitted. "But in life, you learn each day. In France, we say people have one mouth and two ears, and should listen twice as often as they speak. I understand there is a need for balance. I am pleased that Kingsley Jones" - the Welsh flanker whom Saint-Andre appointed captain at Gloucester - "has agreed to come here as coach. In the same way, I am very sad that Jim Mallinder has left the club. He had many qualities, qualities that were different to mine. I think we could have achieved something together."

Mallinder, the twice-capped England full-back who can be counted amongst the most popular of all Sale players, had been running the show as director of rugby when Saint-Andre was appointed over his head. Although this was a time of exodus - people disappeared through the door in unprecedented numbers, many of them bound for Saracens - there were high hopes of Mallinder staying on in a senior coaching role. Those hopes fell on stony ground when he agreed to take up a position in England's national academy set-up.

This could easily have left Saint-Andre isolated - new man in and a dozen out equals crisis, more often than not. In the event, he appears to have as much support, if not more, than he ever experienced at Gloucester. He has gone fishing for big-name personnel - Woodman and Chabal, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and Sililo Martens - and reeled them in. By the end of the season, another four serious signings are likely to have been completed. He is on excellent terms with Brian Kennedy, the chairman and financier-in-chief who has staked a fair chunk of his considerable reputation in bringing the Frenchman to Greater Manchester. Above all, he believes Sale have what it takes to establish rugby union as a serious sporting alternative in a region smothered in rival obsessions.

"When I was at Gloucester, everyone talked about rugby," he said. "This was true in Bourgoin, too. It was the only subject in town. Here, we have Manchester United up the road, and because of this I am in a different situation to any I have encountered in the past. But this is the challenge for me, I think. We will play some wonderful rugby this season, I am sure, and by the end of it, I think people will have noticed us. Wherever you go in sport, winners get big crowds. I have told Brian Kennedy that the stadium will be full quicker than he thinks."

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