Ten years ago the French international scrumhalf Pierre Mignoni was asked to join the coaching staff of the club he played for, Toulon. The unusual aspect was that Mignoni was also to remain a player, with an adjustment to his contract that put him in charge of a few technical exercises, focused on passing.
It came as little surprise to the 33-year-old. Mignoni had already been approached the previous season by New Zealander Vern Cotter as his first pick to join the staff of Clermont. Cotter knew Mignoni well as he had played with Clermont for six seasons.
Had Mignoni accepted Cotter’s approach, he would have taken up the position of Joe Schmidt, who had been coaching the Clermont backs but had decided to take up an offer to move to Ireland as head coach of the Leinster team for the 2010 season.
When Toulon first approached him, Mignoni didn’t want to bring his playing opportunities to a close, and, while it was to be his first move into backroom rugby from a career in which he was framed as a typically French petit general scrumhalf, he would continue to play until 2011.
“Things were very clear with Philippe [Saint-André, coach] right from the start,” said Mignoni. “After Tana Umaga left, he asked me to be in charge of the skills, that is to say of technique. But I will only interact with the three quarters two to three times a week, in small sessions. I’m still a fully-fledged player. I won’t be coach. I won’t take videos and won’t have a say in the composition of the group.”
Ten years later, in April of this year, four coaches remained in the frame to become the next coach of France, after French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte had denied Fabien Galthié had already got the job. Galthié did ultimately get the gig and took over from Jacques Brunel after the World Cup in Japan. Reports from France had named Mignoni and Toulouse’s William Servat as Galthié’s favoured lieutenants.
The flip side is Lyon are also a side that has won eight from nine matches in this season's Top 14
Again Mignoni declined. Lyon, he said, was part of a project he wanted to see through since the team rose from the French second division three years ago. It was a club that had lost six games from six, home and away, to Cardiff, Glasgow and Saracens in the only European Champions Cup tournament they had previous played, the 2018-19 season. The defeat to Northampton last week was seven in a row.
The flip side is Lyon are also a side that has won eight from nine matches in this season’s Top 14 to lead Bordeaux Bègles by five points at the top of the table. They are also the highest point-scorers in the division with 287 points and have the best defensive record with 122 points conceded.
The sense of unfinished business and clear vision that characterised Mignoni’s early career, when Cotter came looking, has stuck with him. While Leinster’s chances in Stade de Gerland on Saturday have some appealing aspects such as experience of playing away, proven players and form, the unshakable belief of the Lyon coach is that his team are on the right path. To that end he has set realistic goals for his side. To break the duck, maybe win a few games, possibly take a scalp. That’s where Leinster may come in.
Mignoni has also shown himself to be an innovative coach, strong on technical and unafraid to break conventions. Speaking this week, Leo Cullen pointed to the unconventional way in which the French side configured players in their 25-14 defeat to Northampton in Franklin’s Gardens.
“Lyon have a lot of variation in terms of their lineout. They are very creative in terms of some of the plays and how they use their players,” said Cullen. “They have had Bastareaud and Carl Fearns play similar roles as a number eight. They use backs in the lineout and fold them around so it can be hard to see the pictures because there is a lot of intricacy to their plays. Northampton did a pretty good job of shutting them down.”
We're not yet at the level of Leinster or Northampton, so we're trying to build on our past experiences
That credit goes to Mignoni as he continues to develop the team, and, with the help of former French and Lyon stars Frédéric Michalak and Lionel Beauxis, their rise, at least domestically, was seen coming from last season. The Champions Cup is a learning curve. Mignoni recognises that reality. And maybe it’s classically French, but he is not afraid to say it either.
“We took a lot of positive lessons [from last season’s Champions Cup], despite the fact that the results were, of course, negative,” he said. “I think we need to set a reasonable goal, but we want to be in this competition this season and, we hope, in the years to come. We’re building the team and we’re building our history. We’re not yet at the level of Leinster or Northampton, who have played a lot of matches in this competition, like Treviso, so we’re trying to build on our past experiences, which are very recent.
“As I said, we want to continue making progress and to win a match and maybe two or three – why not? And we want to try to do our best. I don’t think that [impressive start in the Top 14] gives us more confidence. What gives us more confidence is that we know more about this competition.
“We know that last year we were taken a little bit by surprise in the first two matches, because it’s very different from the Top 14. It’s a type of rugby that’s sometimes a little different.”
He should know. As a player, Mignoni won 28 French caps, made a total of 70 European appearances for Toulon, Béziers, Dax and ASM Clermont Auvergne and scored 20 tries. He also won the Challenge Cup with Clermont in 2007. He is assisted by New Zealander Kendrick Lynn (backs) and former prop David Attoub (scrum), who are both former Lyon players.
That creates culture. And a central part of culture is loyalty to a club and a method and a group of players. By walking away from a role with Galthié and France, Mignoni signalled that he too was prepared to make a sacrifice.
Leinster, above all, understand and respect just what that can bring.