Guy Noves, rugby’s equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson, is reigning still in the south of France. And, says Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson, the other teams in the Heineken are right to fear him.
As far as I’m concerned this last weekend’s Heineken Cup encounters will be remembered primarily for confirming one thing – that Stade Toulousain are the true aristocrats of European rugby.
Guy Noves’ men went to London to take on Harlequins – high-flying unbeaten frontrunners in this season’s English Aviva Premiership – and had clearly taken their travel sickness pills. Defying the often-quoted cliché that French sides can’t win abroad, the French Top 14 leaders turned in an immaculate display of both power and control to record a thoroughly-deserved 21-10 victory at The Stoop. The way that the Frenchmen were able to compete at the breakdown and force their way over the gain line almost at will would have made for sobering watching for any other European coaches harbouring aspirations of winning the Heineken Cup this season. The sheer power of the French side, where Yannick Nyanga, Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles provided a superb six, seven, eight triumvirate, was awesome to behold. And the way in which new signing, New Zealand fly half Luke McAlister, has been assimilated into the side and dictates the play as if he’s been a Toulousain for years already was majestic too.
Much of the credit for Toulouse’s continued dominance on both domestic and European stages has to go to their long-serving Head Coach Guy Noves. The man with a face like a walnut knows his rugby inside out and back to front. Constantly renewing his team, always looking to tinker to create perfection, Noves has been consistently brilliant at bringing in exactly the right players to keep Toulouse fresh and on the front foot. He’s been doing it for years and the number of rugby signing successes he’s had in his career is awesome to behold.
Perhaps the only surprise where the 57-year-old former Toulouse winger is concerned is the fact that he’s still at the helm of the red and blacks 18 years after first getting the Head Coach’s job back in 1993. To the outsider it would seem impossible that Noves hasn’t been offered the job of coaching the French national team. But yet again in 2011 the national team has changed coaches, swapping Marc Lièvremont for Philippe Saint-André, without their being any serious talk of Noves moving from south to north.
Those who know Noves well, however, are far less surprised that he’s never been in charge of Les Bleus. Having spent his entire rugby career at Toulouse, Noves bleeds red and black. Apparently he also runs the club like his personal fiefdom, his power base every bit as solid as Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United.
At Toulouse what Noves says goes, and even if he can come across as cantankerous and arrogant at times, his track record of nine French titles and four Heineken Cups delivered means that his word is law. You don’t contradict Guy Noves. While no successful coach is ever a poor politician, it’s easy to see that a fella who’s so entrenched in one club, so completely able to call the shots, might well be both unwilling and unable to go to work at a national federation, with all of its inevitable behind-the-scenes machinations. Just one look at the guy’s face tells you that Noves isn’t a yes man. Nor does he look like he has the patience to play any kind of games. He’s put the hours into building himself a working set-up that suits him down to the ground in Toulouse. Why would have want to go to Paris and start all over again?
So French national coach? Most likely not. Perhaps the more surprising thing about Guy Noves is where he gets his motivation from. When you’ve done it all and got the T-shirt time and time again you do wonder what makes a fella like him get out of bed in the morning. But again, like Ferguson, winning is Noves’s motor, his raison d’être. It’s what makes him the man he is and like an addict, the more success he has the more he needs. The adrenaline rush of being top dog, of showing he can do it bigger and better the older he gets, never ever dims.
Yet again this season Noves has proved he has the magic touch. His side is once more a perfect reflection of the man; gnarly at the core, yet with a sense of the aesthetic that simply has to be expressed. For Noves the essence of rugby lies in combining the brutal and the beautiful to create a winning formula. The end product, the match result, is always the most important. But the way in which those results are achieved is also an indicator of Toulouse values, of Noves values.
Other clubs may come in France and other clubs may go. Stade Français have recently tried to assert some dominance with a mix of flash and cash. Clermont have tried to mount a challenge on the back of some serious Michelin money. But Stade Toulousain still keep doing things the Toulouse way, with their guardian of the flame Noves at the helm. And they still do it better than anyone else. They are still the benchmark of both French and European rugby and as long as Guy Noves remains at the helm then the smart money is on Toulouse remaining so. And all you can say to that is, ‘Bravo!’