There are a few Frenchmen who have had considerable influence on English club rugby in recent years but none more so than Philippe Saint-Andre who announced last week that he would be leaving Sale and returning across the Channel. He will be sorely missed.
Saint-Andre has been on English rugby radars since 1991 when he scored what remains one of the best tries Twickenham has ever seen. Off the top of my head I still cannot think of a better one scored there at international level. Two years later he scored twice, both of them taking advantage of Jonathan Webb’s propensity for dropping his shopping when standing underneath a high ball.
France lost both those games but as captain he enjoyed success against England, not least in the 1995 RWC 3rd/4th place play off, France’s only success against England in 4 World Cup matches. He captained his country in precisely half of his 68 internationals, highly unusual for a winger.
He first came to England to play for Gloucester, later becoming their coach, and after a short spell back in his homeland he took over the reins at Sale Sharks in 2004. I think that what Saint-Andre has achieved at Sale has been staggering, possibly the equal of what Warren Gatland achieved at Wasps. He took a mid-table Premiership club, not one of the country’s traditional powerhouses, and made them into champions.
In 2005-06, Sale became the first, and as yet only team to finish top of the league and win the play-offs, thumping Leicester 45-20 in the final. They were indisputably the finest team in the land throughout that season. More significantly, in 10 years they are the only club to have broken the stranglehold on the title held by Leicester (5 titles) and Wasps (4 titles). This is some achievement and it was done playing an attractive, but by no means reckless brand of rugby, build upon doing the basics very well and taking chances ruthlessly.
Since then, for a combination of reasons, Sale have failed to kick on. They have had horrendous injury problems and have been affected as badly as anyone by the structure of the English season which means they lose many players to international duty. That is also a reflection on the cosmopolitan nature of the squad he has assembled. However, it is a tribute to Saint-Andre that the club has continued to attract talent such as Dwayne Peel, Mathew Tait and Luke McAlister to add to the established names such as Sebastian Chabal, Charlie Hodgson and Marc Cueto.
Beyond his own presence, Saint-Andre has increased the Gallic presence in this country by bringing many of his countrymen over, some of whom have gone on to become cult heroes and reignite their international careers from across the water. The most obvious example is Seabass, big Sebastian Chabal who, despite Bernard Laporte’s clear mistrust of him, offered an unanswerable case for international inclusion while in Sale’s colours. Lionel Faure and Olivier Azam are other names which leap to mind.
I think it’s a shame that more English players don’t travel the other way across the channel. Genuine international contenders to have made the trip are few and far between. Ben Cohen and Steve Thompson went when their stars were on the wane, Andy Goode when his Leicester 10 shirt seemed set to go to Toby Flood. I would love to see more England players step out of their comfort zones and try their luck alongside the stellar talent to be found at Toulouse, Stade and Clermont Auvergne. Imagine how much Jonny Wilkinson would learn out there instead of in his comfortable cocoon at underachieving Newcastle
But back to Philippe. It would be wonderful if his Sale team could give him an appropriate send-off. They are capable of it with Hodgson remaining the most rounded fly-half in the Premiership, McAlister arguably the best player in the league, Sheridan pushing entire stadiums over and Chabal still thirsty for blood.
And it looked rosy a few weeks back when they sat top of the League after going 4 games without conceding a try, and thumped Clermont Auvergne in their own backyard. Things are looking rather more dubious now as they have slipped to 4th in the league and need a victory at Thomond Park to qualify in Europe. The Heineken Cup is unlikely to be added to Saint-Andre’s trophy cabinet this season but another league title is far from beyond them if they can establish a degree of consistency.
It will be no more than Saint-Andre deserves. He has established a previously unfashionable club from outside rugby union’s traditional heartlands as perennial challengers at the right end of the table with a list of glittering stars on their books. He has successfully mixed the differing rugby cultures of England and France, has been dignified and popular (even if he does have one of the worst English accents I’ve ever heard) and is worthy of great admiration. I expect to see him back in England sometime soon at the helm of the French national team.
By Stuart Peel