MARC LIEVREMONT - profiled by Rupert Bates
Marc Lievremont was behind the bar serving beers to his squad, having insisted the shy man-child mountain Mathieu Bastareaud stood on a table and belted out La Marseillaise.
So that’s a couple of myths exploded. The France coach is not detached from his players and does know how to enjoy himself – occasionally.
With some of the chat coming out of France you would think Lievremont is about as popular a French coach going into a World Cup year as Raymond Domenech was, with the rugby squad just as revolting as their football counterparts were in South Africa last year. To lose 59-16 at home to Australia and escape the guillotine suggests Lievremont has the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mobile number.
The appointment of Lievremont, who won 25 caps, after the last World Cup in France’s backyard, was a huge surprise. He certainly did not crave or lobby for the job.
Some say Lievremont is enigmatic; others he is one croissant short of a continental breakfast. If he capped teeth as often as he capped players he would be the world’s wealthiest dentist.
Lievremont, the eldest of seven rugby-playing brothers from Argeles-sur-Mer in Catalan country near Perpignan, recently went on a skiing holiday, presumably believing Val d’Isere might be a promising outside-half.
One man who knows Lievremont well is Richard Pool-Jones, the former England and Wasps flanker, who spent three years beside Lievremont in the Stade Francais back-row and, like Lievremont, splits his time between home in Biarritz on the Basque coast and business in Paris.
“As a player Marc was slightly away from the crowd, but not in a negative way. He was not naturally one of the boys and is highly principled,” said Pool-Jones now a leading rugby pundit in France, as well as managing his investment fund.
In other words Lievremont was not one of Stade Francais flamboyant owner Max Guazzini’s party animals.
“Marc expects a lot of himself and those around him and likes loyalty. He is discreet, very humble and a real family man. He does not appreciate outspokenness in a team environment,” said Pool-Jones, whose one England cap came against Australia on the 1998 ‘Tour from Hell.’
Unlike his predecessor Bernard Laporte, Lievremont, 42, is not comfortable with the media - understated and content to operate under the radar, rather than court attention.
“If Marc looks unhappy in front of a microphone it is because he is. He does not seek public recognition.”
Pool-Jones rejects talk of dissension in the French ranks and Lievremont ‘losing the dressing room’ in the wake of the trouncing by the Wallabies in November.
“That was not capitulation. France were simply outclassed and technically naïve. Senior players looked hard at themselves and there were harsh, honest words spoken as you would expect after a defeat like that.”
There was method in the madness of bringing in so many players in his first year. Pool-Jones believes Lievremont wanted to take full advantage of his honeymoon period, with no great burden of expectation post the 2007 World Cup. Young half-backs Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc were Lievremont debutant picks in his first squad and scrum-half Parra in particular has matured into a world-class player and leader.
“Marc did not seek the position and coaching is not central to his existence, so if the worst happened and he lost the job it would not be the end of the world. This gave him the freedom to experiment.”
Do not mistake this for not caring or not knowing what he is doing. Behind the apparent insouciance, lies a fierce competitor and leader, passionate about doing his best for French rugby, winning another Grand Slam and the World Cup.
“We have had six very difficult months for the French team and we need to gain confidence again and the respect of fans and the French press by our performances on the pitch,” said Lievremont.
“My captain (Thiery Dusautoir) and I were both criticised and rightly so because we are the people in charge, who make the engine tick.”
Lievremont says his Six Nations squad will “more or less be the squad that goes to New Zealand” for the World Cup.
Pool-Jones agrees that the tinkering is over, but injuries have played their part. France are both blessed and cursed by the number of international class players they can choose from, even if they do not perform consistently at the highest level.
“The pack can compete with and strangle most sides in the world. There is no weakness in the forwards and Imanol Harinordoquy is firing on all cylinders,” said Pool-Jones. By contrast the first-choice back-line – hefty or nimble - is far from settled.
Lievremont has tended to share the ring publicly with his coaching team of Emile Ntamack and Didier Retiere, but now realises the head coach needs to be the sole face and clearly in charge.
“’If people have anything to say they say it to me. It is my responsibility,’ is his approach now,” said Pool-Jones.
“Marc is bright and generous. As a player he was just about the best tackler I ever saw. That passion, hardness and spirit has to come from somewhere.”
The next time Lievremont seems detached and distracted, look behind the eyes. They are on fire. He is planning on serving plenty more celebratory beers yet.