PEOPLE GET it wrong about Pierre Villepreux: he is not rugby's Rousseau, but its Voltaire. There is a romantic side to the great French coach, certainly, but it is firmly rooted in enlightened reality. To Villepreux, the beauty of the 15-man game as performed by the Tricolores in last Sunday's classic World Cup semi-final with the All Blacks was that it was the product of the mind as well as the body, the fullest expression of the art of the possible. And when Villepreux has his hand on the tiller, anything is possible.
"Rugby is about understanding, nothing more," he said in Cardiff on Tuesday morning as his countrymen, still elated by the grandeur of their Twickenham performance, gathered for their first training run in the build-up to Saturday's final with Australia at the Millennium Stadium. "All the team must understand what is being attempted, of course, not just two or three players. It is the most difficult thing for a coach to achieve, this acting and reacting together as one. But once you have this understanding, you can play."
Just as Villepreux himself could play. This angular, hawk-nosed, middle- aged philosopher king from Pompadour first brought his wide-ranging sporting imagination to bear on the game of his choice in the 1960s, a decade defined by the shock of the new. He played full-back for Stade Toulousain and, between 1967 and 1972, for Les Bleus, winning 34 caps and leaving an indelible mark on the international scene with the elegance of his counter- attacking and the sophistication of his technique. He was a leading light of rugby's haut monde; in 1970, he combined with the "three Bs" from Toulouse - Bourgarel, Bonal and Berot - to humiliate England 35-13 at Colombes. Villepreux kicked 14 points that day, but considered it an irrelevance. What satisfied him was the fact that France had played the rugby of the Gods, and that the Gods had rewarded them with six tries.
Like any other truly original thinker - like Voltaire, indeed - he would go on to spend much of his prime in exile: in Italy, where he coached the national team during the late 80s; in Wales, where he enjoyed a brief flirtation with Newport; and in England, where he was twice invited to share a secret or two with the red rose army. He ran a few sessions at an England training camp in Portugal in 1989 and then reappeared at Twickenham five years later, having accepted a personal invitation from Jack Rowell. Did Les Rosbifs listen to his words of wisdom? "To change your rugby, you must first change your mentality. Rob Andrew understood this and I had no problems with Guscott. Barnes could do it, too. Carling? Carling could have played my rugby, but he didn't want to. He wanted organisation, and my game is flexibility and adaptability, not organisation."
French rugby politics being what it is, Villepreux remained an outsider until Jean-Claude Skrela, an old club-mate and a dedicated pragmatist, succeeded Pierre Berbizier as top dog at the end of the 1995 World Cup. "When I undertake to do something," said Skrela, whose coaching partnership with Villepreux at Toulouse in the 1980s had realised three national championships, "I do it to the full." Only one person, he surmised, could help him work at optimum pitch. By January 1997, the partnership was up and running once again.
It blossomed, too; there was a Grand Slam in '97 and another a year later, when Villepreux managed to put the entire Tricolore side on Thomas Castaignede's wonderfully inventive wavelength. At which point, the bloom faded: France were beaten in Paris by both Australia and South Africa before last Christmas and went on to finish bottom of the Five Nations pile in the spring. A 50-point Test defeat in New Zealand followed in June. The French press, aided and abetted by former Tricolore internationals, got stuck into the team, peddling stories of split loyalties and internal dissension, and there were calls for the head of Raphael Ibanez, the captain. The wheels had not only parted company with the wagon, but rolled straight into the Seine.
Did Villepreux think about resigning? "It is not in my philosophy to resign. Resignation is something you do when you are not sure of anything any more. I was quite sure of where we were going, that we were on the right road. We had a bad tour of New Zealand, yes, but I came away from that experience feeling that we would be ready for this tournament. I knew that we could beat Canada, Namibia and Fiji in the pool stage, even if we were not at our strongest; these are - how you say? - normal victories for us. I thought we might then play Ireland in the quarter-finals, a side we have beaten on every occasion since 1983. As it turned out, we played Argentina. This too was a game we could win. So we came to New Zealand knowing that one big performance would give us our place in the final.
"Rugby in the northern hemisphere is not as strong as in the south and a single victory over the All Blacks does not change that fact, but we worked on our defence and came up with a way of winning the game of rugby in front of us.
"There is no problem with our team spirit; I do not recognise the things that have been said in the papers by Thierry Lacroix and Philippe Saint- Andre. I would not say it irritates me, but I was upset when Ibanez was booed from the pitch in Toulouse during the Fiji game. The French public needs to show some respect for the captain, they need educating. He is a strong leader and a popular player, a man who has made a big contribution to holding the team together in difficult circumstances. People should understand this."
No longer the visionary in exile, Villepreux is now such a welcome figure in the French Rugby Federation's corridors of power that he is considered part of the establishment. Indeed, he takes over as the FFR's technical director at the end of this tournament. "How long will I stay? It is up to me. Two years, perhaps, or four, Maybe six. After that I will be too old. But I want to make things happen while I am able; I think it is important - no, crucial - that the northern hemisphere nations work together to help European rugby fulfil itself.
"There was no co-operation between us when professionalism arrived and without co-operation, we will be lost. We need a bigger European competition, one in which the players can play for more than the result. If victory is everything in every game, how is it possible to play with freedom and liberty? You must be clever to play rugby; it is not only about running and kicking, but doing these things at the right moment. Without the freedom to fail, how can we learn to be clever?"
Will the French be sufficiently clever on Saturday? "Ah, Saturday. The Wallabies are the toughest team in the tournament, I think; they have the best backs and the most options. But rugby is so strange at times. There is no Castaignede in the French midfield, no Califano in the front row. But we have a team, yes. As long as the players do not consider it enough just to have made it to the final, I think we can play one more game like last week. I hope so, anyway. It would mean a great deal to win."
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