Gloucester, one of the great powerhouses of the English club game, last night parted company with Philippe Saint-André, one of the great characters of French rugby, thereby running down the curtain on the most prolonged "will he stay, or will he go" episode in the brief history of professional union. Precisely three years after taking over as director of rugby at Kingsholm, Saint-André will pack his bags – and, presumably, his beloved espresso machine – following the Premiership match at Harlequins on Saturday.
This is a peculiar time for a parting of the ways, for Saint-André has taken his team to second place in the Premiership and into the semi-finals of the European Shield, and put them within touching distance of a Heineken Cup place next season. Less than a year ago, Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, could be heard describing Saint-André as "the most successful coach this club has had, by a country mile". Since then, Saint-André has been more successful still.
For all that, Walkinshaw stone-walled the former French captain throughout an interminable round of contract negotiations, prompting Saint-André to warn 11 days ago that he would walk away if immediate progress was not made. One highly placed Kingsholm insider said: "As with all these things, money is the root of the problem." Yet while Saint-André was indeed pressing for a significant improvement in personal terms, he was also unpopular with a section of the first-team squad, who considered him a poor, sometimes unfathomable, man-manager. In addition, a group of discontented former Gloucester players have been lobbying hard against him.
It seems likely that Gloucester's loss will be Bourgoin's gain. Saint-André has extensive business interests in Lyon, the nearest major city to Bourgoin, and is thought to have ambitious plans for the French first division club, which he believes could tap into a wider support base. "I am not going to lie: there has been contact between Philippe and ourselves," said a Bourgoin spokesman yesterday. "The discussions started two weeks ago, and were instigated by our president, Pierre Martinet. However, nothing has been decided."
Walkinshaw was typically blunt in announcing Saint-André's departure yesterday. "Philippe has made an extremely valuable contribution in his three seasons in charge," he said. "However, during our recent negotiations, we both came to the conclusion that it would be better for Philippe and the club to go our separate ways." Saint-André was diplomacy made flesh. "I will take with me some good memories," he said. "I wish Gloucester the very best for the future."
That future will be interesting, to say the least. While Saint-André's senior coaches, his countryman Laurent Seigne and the former Wales outside-half Paul Turner, will remain in their roles until a new director of rugby is appointed, Seigne is expected to move to Bourgoin. Some of the players lured across the channel by Saint-André – Olivier Azam, Patrice Collazo, Ludovic Mercier, Dimitri Yachvili, Pierre Caillet – will probably do likewise. As Azam said after Gloucester's victory over London Irish two weekends ago: "If Philippe stays at Gloucester, we will stay too. If not, who knows?"
Suddenly, Walkinshaw has two big decisions to make. As well as identifying a replacement for Saint-André, he must also work out whether Phil Vickery, the club captain and an increasingly valuable commodity as a tight-head prop of world class, is as central to Gloucester's fortunes as the thousands of die-hards who populate the Kingsholm Shed believe him to be. Vickery, out of contract at the end of the season, is known to be asking big bucks – with the market as it is, he is worth upwards of £200,000 a year – and Leicester are known to be very keen on his services.
Three players who have sorted a future for themselves are the long-serving Scotland internationals Gary Armstrong, Doddie Weir and George Graham. They will leave Newcastle this summer, having signed for the new Scottish Borders team, which
Meanwhile, the England captain, Martin Johnson, has used a website column to appeal for justice – his version of it, at least – when he appears before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal tomorrow to answer charges over the televised punch he landed on the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell 10 days ago. "It seems as if that single punch created more column inches than Henry Cooper knocking down Cassius Clay," he said. "If the press go overboard, there is nothing you can do. The best I can hope for is that the panel treat it as they would any other incident."Reuse content