Tumultuous year at French club

Stade Francais coach Greg Cooper back home in Dunedin this week. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
Stade Francais coach Greg Cooper back home in Dunedin this week. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
French rugby never does things by halves. Former Highlanders coach Greg Cooper has been through plenty of drama in his first season with the Stade Francais club. Back in Dunedin for a short break, he catches up with rugby writer Steve Hepburn.

It would be hard to think of something that did not happen to Greg Cooper in rugby terms in the past 12 months.

The French are known for their passion and their emotion — and Cooper got that in bucketloads during his first year at Stade Francais.

Strikes, threats of mergers, walk-outs, heavy losses, big wins, promotion, departing owners, new owner and, at the end of it, some long awaited silverware.

Cooper (52), who had joined the club as an assistant coach and attack coach, admitted this week he had enjoyed the year but it was one which had plenty of ups and downs.

One major drama was when the owners of Racing 92 and Stade Francais proposed to merge in January and have just one major rugby club in Paris.

"We had a player strike at one stage ... The fact was the players from Stade did not want to go and play for Racing," he said.

"It would be like Waikato and Auckland merging and Auckland taking over. Players just did not want it and that was understandable. They had all the history and the culture of the club to consider.

"But these clubs and the owners lose a lot of money and so they said, which is fair enough, we need to do something about this."

Stade Francais was owned by the Savare family which had businesses in security systems but they had signalled early on last season they wanted to pull back on their input and scale back investment in the club.

"With that some of the players started to look to leave and it became a concern. Then there was this merger that came along. That had a real affect on what was happening on the field.

"So we were really struggling for a while."

The players went on strike and missed a game but they won the battle off the field as the merger proposal was dumped.

That started turning the ship round and on the field things started clicking. The side started winning.

New owner German billionaire Hans-Peter Wild came on board and the last couple of months of last season were successful.

The club ended up winning the European Rugby Challenge Cup, beating Gloucester at Murrayfield.

"That was the first European trophy for the club so that was something to be proud of. We were playing some really good rugby there. At one stage we were flirting with relegation but ended up finishing just one place out of the top six.

"There was a tough period there. We had players worried about their futures, guys looking to move on and a few critical injuries to players."

Cooper himself also had an important issue to look at.

Departing president Thomas Savare had approached him about becoming the head coach for the club just three months into the season.

Argentinian Gonzalo Quesada had been coaching the side for three years but, with new owners coming on board, he decided to move on.Cooper said he was honoured to be asked to be head coach and took on a three-year contract.

It is going to be a big job but he has his goals.

"I have talked with the new owner, Hans-Peter Wild, and he is fully supportive of what we are trying to do. He is a real rugby man. He has set up a rugby academy in Germany.

"Certainly, in this first year, it is a transition year. Just to see how we are going and get a few structures in place.

"I think it is a good mix. We have the German efficiency, the ability to get systems in place, alongside the French passion and culture."

Wild made his money in fruit concentrate.Cooper is busy appointing staff and said a couple of New Zealanders will be involved though he could not name them yet.

French rugby is a web of rumours and half truths. Cooper said that was just the way it was.

He is mindful of having French coaches involved. Last season none of the coaches at the club were  French and he felt some home town coaches would help the club.

The French season is a grind — 11 months of the year.Cooper will head back to France late next week. The side’s first pre-season game is on August 4 and that will begin a season which will go through to the start of June next year.

Being head coach of the club he will join a list of names which includes  Michael Cheika, Nick Mallett and Fabien Galthie.Cooper said the standard of Top 14 rugby in France was similar to Super Rugby.

"It is very big in the south of France. In Paris, it is a little bit different. Sort of like Auckland. There are lots of other things happening. You’ve got all the art and tourism. Then you’ve got Paris St Germain just down the road, the football team. So there is a great deal of competition in the city."

Stade Francais has let go more than a dozen players from last season, including Wallabies halfback Will Genia and French international prop Rabah Slimani.

Cooper said some young forwards were being drafted in, South African halfback Charl McLeod had come in for Genia and former Otago fullback Tony Ensor had signed on.

"I’ve always had a lot of time for Tony. We are looking to play with a lot of width and that is part of his game. It is a great opportunity for Tony. Getting away from New Zealand will let him find his feet a little bit."

Being the head coach means more media and that means getting to grip with the French language.

"It is hard. English is widely spoken but the French, they expect to be spoken to in French. And that is fair enough. I know enough to get by, I suppose, but I’m trying to learn all the time."

Stade Francais needed to perform better away from home, he said, which was standard for most French teams. That required a shift in mindset for the players.

He enjoys living in Europe. He was in Prague for Christmas and then caught up with old Otago team-mate Brent Pope in Ireland.

His three children had all grown up and left home so he and wife Sam enjoy Paris. Sam shares her time between France and New Zealand.He is hoping to catch up with some Highlanders coaches and, of course, catch the British and Irish Lions series.

The former All Black fullback said he had to favour the All Blacks but the Lions would present a challenge.

The All Blacks would stand up to any tough play set by the Lions and had the players to diffuse the high balls.

"The biggest issue with the Lions is they lack real strikepower. Nothing really comes from their line breaks. The All Blacks line breaks — they get pushed out in the corner or score a try.  The Lions are going to be a real handful at the breakdown and set piece but they are going to be matched by the All Blacks."

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