After an abysmal 2008 World Cup, France took the surprising step of appointing Bobbie Goulding as their new head coach which is when I spoke to him for a Rugby League World interview. Under the former Great Britain and St Helens scrum-half, France competed strongly against England, New Zealand and Australia in the 2009 Four Nations.
What can you bring to this job that John Monie couldn’t?
The World Cup’s gone and it’s not my concern. My concern is the future and I want us to be established again the top four in the world. There’ll be a lot more commitment, effort and heart than they showed in the World Cup. I’ll be a lot more hands-on than John was. I’ll be over there twice a month, every month – maybe more. It’s officially a part-time post but I’ll be working full-time hours.
What’s your reaction to those who have criticised your appointment?
I’m not bothered what other people say at all, apart from my wife and kids. Mike Stevenson called it bizarre but I know what I can do and I know what I can bring to this job. I’ve got 25 Test matches behind me – how much experience do you want? People might say I haven’t coached in Super League but look at what Stephen Kearney did with the Kiwis. You get experience by doing the job and no-one will work harder than me.
How did the job come about?
A mate of mine in France, Pierre, called me up and told me I had an interview for the French job which took me aback but I thought ‘fair enough, we’ll see what happens’. I’ve always said put me in front of someone and I’ll get a job and that’s what happened when I met the President. He saw the desire and hunger in my eyes and within 48 hours I’d got the job.
Do you know who else was after the job?
No and I don’t really care to be honest. There were a few names bandied about but I’m not bothered by anyone else.
Monie’s style of rugby wasn’t the most open. How will yours compare?
The French will definitely be playing rugby under me – don’t take away something they’re good at. If it doesn’t work then the people will at least be happy with what they’re watching – movement of ball, people supporting, little chip overs, little kicks to the corner; something different than international rugby is doing at the minute. I love watching Benji Marshall. I love watching those maverick players and they do something for me. I know that Thomas Bosc has got a lot more up his sleeve than he’s showing right now and I like the winger Dimitri Pelo. The forwards are massive and if I can get them fired up with the backs rolling of it then who knows what we can do? I’ll be encouraging them to play rugby, and with some style too.
Some coaches, more than others, are willing to give youth a chance. Are you one of those?
Absolutely. If they’re good enough they go straight in and you don’t just give them one game. You give them the shirt for three of four games and tell them to go and do themselves and their family proud. Maybe not for the mid-season game against England, but there’ll be some kids in my Four-Nations squad.
Is it a concern that you will have a number of part-time players in your squad?
Not at all. When you put an international jersey on, you’re ten-foot tall. The skill and fitness levels might be slightly lacking compared to the full-timers but if I can get a couple of camps together, and get the tactics and the gameplan on the table, we’ll be OK. The part-time players have to get to the Catalans players’ levels and they know that. Things will get interesting after May, though, because their domestic competition finishes then and the players from the Elite comp will not be playing in competitive games as we build up to the Four Nations. I’ll be naming a squad of about 30 players.
Will you be looking to get some of the domestic players to English clubs on loan?
Yes I’ll be speaking to the President and the players about this. They need time on the field – flogging them on the training field is one thing but they need contact. It would be great to get some of them into Super League clubs but, if not, then into Championship clubs to keep them going. As well as that if there are any international sides, like Ireland, Scotland or Wales who want a friendly against us, even if we don’t have the Catalans lads, then we’d be up for that. We need at least two games after May without the Catalans players.
Will Paul Sculthorpe be your assistant?
Scully hasn’t got back to me so I’m going to go down another avenue. As an assistant, Patrick Alberola, the France A coach, is a possibility and I hope Rodney Howe at the Dragons, comes on board as conditioner with Guy Delaney in there too. I’m also looking at having a different consultant on board for each opponent we play – an Englishman when we play England, an Australian when we play Australia and a Kiwi when we play New Zealand.
Is Garry Schofield in the frame?
Yes, Schoey could be one who helps us out. No-one can deny what he’s done in the game and he has plenty to offer.
Have you seen many games so far?
Not in France yet but I plan to go there at the start of April. I saw the Dragons at Warrington and Leeds and saw Toulouse at Widnes – but the less said about the better! I saw France A play against the Great Britain Community Lions and there were some good players involved. I particularly liked Sébastien Martins, the prop, who won the game for them, and he’ll be in my first squad. Mickael Murcia, the halfback, had a good game as did the two wingers, Nicolas Piquemal and Frederic Vaccari and also Florian Quintilla in the second row.
You must be impressed with how Catalans have done in the last three years.
Definitely and they have 14 or 15 French players playing regularly who can all play and they’ll all be in my squad. The conditions are great down there and if you can’t play rugby in them, you may as well pack in. Super League should have gone there in 1996 and I said that in my Liverpool Echo column at the time but they went to Paris where the game isn’t strong. It’s certainly strong in the south. Now Super League finally has a team there, look at how successful it has been, not just on the field with a Wembley final and a third-place finish but off the field with the crowds too. They haven’t started this season too well but I hope it turns around for Kevin [Walters]. They certainly have the talent.
There are currently Catalans and Toulouse playing in the English competitions. Is that enough?
In a couple of years’ time I’d like to see another side in the Co-operative Championships where the players are below 21, with four over-age players. Those players will be the future of French rugby. Toulouse will hopefully be in Super League in the next round of licences too because we need them to be as strong as possible.
Will you consider picking Australians like Clint Greenshields, Adam Mogg, Casey McGuire and Jason Croker who now qualify for France through residency?
You have to look at all of your available options. Never say no. But long term the plan has to be to improve French Rugby League and the juniors has to be a big part of that. They’re the future. But if Greenshields is available not many people will knock him back!
The French have played a lot of rugby in the last couple of years. Are you worried by player burn-out?
You just have to get on with it but it could be a factor. Players in general play too many games, not just the French. The RFL need to look at scrapping the second Easter fixture. Catalans play Thursday, Monday and then the following Saturday. Then there’s the Magic Weekend shortly after and the players will be spent by then. Wouldn’t you have thought they’d have wanted the players fresh for a showpiece occasion?
You were part of the European Championship success in 1996 when England beat France by 70 points. How much have the French improved since then?
Well, you have to be honest and say that results-wise, they haven’t improved too much even though there are now a number of full-time players to choose from. They’ve had their moments, some good performances, but everyone has their moments. Too many players still think that they just have to turn up and they’ll get in the squad but that won’t be the case in the future. 75-80 per cent of the squad will be from the World Cup squad but there’ll be some new names.
How different are club and international coaching?
There are obvious differences like the day-to-day involvement at club coaching but other than that I can’t really say because I’m new to this. But what I can say is we’ll be fired up for that Four-Nations opener in Paris, the capital city, and the players want to make amends for the World Cup. I’ve spoken to some of the players and someone like Jerome Guisset doesn’t want to retire on a note like that. We’ll be more fired up for that, and for the mid-season game with England, than they were for any World Cup game.
The talent is obviously there – the French were beating England for 30 minutes in the 2007 mid-season game.
If we can play like that for the full 80 then we’ll be in with a chance but saying it and doing it are completely different. It’s about speeding the game up when we want to and slowing it down when we want to. Last time against England, they kept the ball in play too much, kicking it to the fullback and England were always on a roll. We need to do everything on our terms.
Did you always know you’d go into coaching?
I had to because I’ve never done anything else away from the game. I had to go from playing to coaching even though it didn’t happen straightaway for one reason or another. I’ve seen players become good coaches and thought to myself that I could do it too. I can motivate people which is what I did it as a captain – I was very hands-on and treated the players like my brothers when I captained them. I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie with the lads and I also used to enjoy firing the speccies up and getting them behind us. I’ll know which players need a bollocking and which need an arm around them. I’ll get the best out of them.
How much do you miss playing at the highest level?
I hated it and when I coach I always have the ball in my hand, joining in and showing the players how it’s done. I’m a coach who will have the players doing what I do, not what I say. A coach has to be able to demonstrate what he wants from the players.
Who’s the best coach you played for?
I can’t pick one. What I want to do is take something from each of John Monie, Phil Larder, Mal Reilly, Doug Laughton, Ellery Hanley, Shaun McRae and Eric Hughes. All of them taught me something – Eric had great man-to-man skills, Shaun could always find weaknesses in the opposition and Mal and Ellery had excellent overall packages.
You’ve come through some adversity in your career. Will that make you a better coach?
I’ve had to come through things because I’ve got a family to support. I’ve come through adversity on and off the field and it does make you stronger although people do like to bring my past up which is just the way it is with some people. There are plenty of coaches out there with a past, who have been in trouble but every time my name is mentioned, people like to stir the pot. But I can take it on the chin and come through it.
Your son, Bobbie, recently signed for Warrington. How’s he getting on at the club?
He’s doing well. He’s been handed over to Gary Chambers at the Under-18s and he’s training well. Whether he gets in straightaway, we don’t know but it’s a great learning curve for him. I just hope he does everything I did and more. But as long as he’s healthy, happy and smiling – that’s all I’m bothered about. My kids are certainly keeping me busy at the moment. Bradley, who’s 13, is captain of his club side. He’ll be in the service area this year and then there’ll be representative football for him at the end of the year. My daughter Ellie is doing her netball at high school and then there’s Thomas who’s Bobbie and Bradley rolled into one!