Saint-Andre stirs debate over future

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The Independent Online

Philippe Saint-Andre's four-and-a-half year stint at Gloucester has always had a whiff of the bizarre about it – strains of "La Marseillaise" emanating from the dark depths of the Kingsholm Shed are enough to confuse anyone – but yesterday's developments in Cherry-and-White country were even more peculiar than usual. News that Saint-André planned to hold a press conference next week to "clarify" his position at the club took other Gloucester officials by surprise and added fuel to a fire of speculation surrounding the Frenchman's intentions.

Saint-André, scorer of the "try from nowhere" against England in 1991 and architect of the "try from the end of the world" against New Zealand three years later, has been in contract negotiations with the Gloucester owner, Tom Walkinshaw, since before Christmas. However, there has been a background of discontent, with a number of players refusing to sign new deals and a posse of former players lobbying hard for Saint-André's dismissal.

Yet Gloucester are performing well in the Premiership, where they currently lay second to Leicester, and have reached the semi-finals of the Parker Pen Shield, the second-tier European tournament that offers automatic qualification for next season's Heineken Cup to the winners. Saint-André took the club up a level last term by making the last four of the Heineken, and has been described by Walkinshaw as "the best coach this club has ever had by a country mile".

According to the bush telegraph in France, Saint-André may soon be bound for Bourgoin, who sacked their coach, the former international hooker Jean-François Tordo, a couple of months ago. Saint-André has spent the last few days in his homeland: indeed, he was in France when Gloucester's record-signing, the former New Zealand rugby league international Henry Paul, publicly criticised the Kingsholm regime after being unceremoniously dumped from the starting line-up for last Friday's comprehensive Shield quarter-final victory over Ebbw Vale.

Saint-André seems likely to return across the Channel sooner rather than later, as Bourgoin are far from alone in expressing an interest in his services. If he departs the West Country before the end of this campaign, there is no guarantee that his French co-coach, Laurent Seigné, will stay on. Gloucester would also have to work out a way of keeping hold of several French players who have made an outstanding contribution to their success this season, notably the loose-head prop Patrice Collazo and the outside-half Ludovic Mercier.

Meanwhile, the strange tale of England's missing Bath players took a strange turn when sources close to the West Country club claimed that last week's red rose training get-together in Surrey was not, and never had been, a mandatory session. Six players – Mike Tindall, Mike Catt, Matt Perry, Iain Balshaw, Danny Grewcock and Mark Regan – failed to attend the gathering on Monday of last week, having been asked by the Recreation Ground management to stay in Bath to prepare for a Heineken quarter-final with Llanelli.

Bath were subsequently given a suspended £5,000 fine by the board of England Rugby Ltd – a fine senior figures at both the Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby, the organisation representing England's élite clubs, laughably attempted to keep under wraps. While there has been no official comment from the Recreation Ground management – in the interests of public harmony, Bath have been ordered to button their collective lip – news of the punishment was greeted with astonishment, and no little anger.

On the international front, Scotland have recalled the Edinburgh outside-half Duncan Hodge for Saturday's Calcutta Cup match with England at Murrayfield. The scorer of all 19 of his country's points when the Scots famously spiked an English Grand Slam two years ago, he returns to the fray as a direct result of the calf strain suffered by Northampton's John Leslie. Gregor Townsend moves from stand-off to centre, alongside James McLaren.

Ireland, who play Wales on Sunday, have awarded a first cap to the Munster lock Paul O'Connell, who replaces the injured Malcolm O'Kelly. Another Munsterman, the 35-year-old prop Peter Clohessy, has decided to retire from top-level rugby at the end of the season. Clohessy wins his 50th cap this weekend.

IRELAND TEAM (v Wales, Six Nations' match, Dublin, Sunday): G Dempsey (Terenure College), G Murphy (Leicester), B O'Driscoll (Blackrock College), K Maggs (Bath), D Hickie (St Mary's College), D Humphreys (Dungannon), P Stringer (Cork Constitution); P Clohessy (Young Munster), F Sheahan (Cork Constitution), J Hayes (Shannon), M Galwey (capt, Shannon), P O'Connell (Young Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli), D Wallace (Garryowen), A Foley (Shannon). Replacements: S Byrne (Blackrock College), P Wallace (Blackrock College), G Longwell (Ballymena), K Gleeson (St Mary's College), R O'Gara (Cork Constitution), R Henderson (Young Munster), G Easterby (Llanelli).

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