‘I think so much talent is wasted in France’ – Mehrtens

After more than five years playing and coaching in the country, the former All Black outhalf feels French sides play more as individuals

It may appear as if Andrew Mehrtens vanished off the face of the earth but the legendary ex-All Blacks outhalf has actually spent the last six seasons in French rugby. They were low profile years, wandering around three divisions with three different clubs, although three promotions in his first four years prompted Mehrtens to start calling himself Don King.

After signing off with Harlequins in 2007 by scoring 24 points on his 34th birthday, Mehrtens won promotion with Toulon from ProD2, repeated the trick the following season with Racing Métro, playing in the Top 14 in his second season there, before wining promotion from the third tier, Federale 1, with Beziers and one final campaign in the ProD2 as a player-coach.

Now 40, he is set to move on, perhaps to Italy, perhaps back to New Zealand and a move into “the financial world” combined with some under-age coaching. Then again, the Mehrtens have a pleasant life in Beziers, living in a former 17th century winery with a swimming pool.

“We’ve got a beautiful set up at Beziers. I have a carte de residence now which means I can live in France for the next ten years. So if worse comes to worst we can stay on there and you can think of worse places, you know, can’t you?”

He and his wife, Jacqueline, along with their French-born kids George (five) and Ivy (three) had a memorable time in France. “We’ve loved our experience. It’s a phenomenal country and I think when you get them on a very individual level the French are very welcoming,” says Mehrtens.

An engaging, modest and indeed self-deprecating man, Mehrtens talks with unbridled passion over his first pint of Guinness in years on a brief visit to Dublin last week for the Irupa awards banquet, about the game that has dominated his life, and his mixture of love and frustration for rugby Francais. Just tee him up and let him go. There’s no stopping him.

Cheque book policy
While Toulon, his first port of call, have a cheque book policy of hoovering up as much as they can of the best talent in given positions, under Bernard Laporte, says Mehrtens, specialist coaches have been given their head and Toulon have become more organised.

“But you still see, a lot of the time, they play as individuals and that’s French teams probably to a tee. That’s their weakness. If they feel that everybody is on song on their day they will beat up anyone because they’ve got phenomenal athletes right throughout the country but they’re just so individual.

"You wonder if they are even team people. What they call their esprit de clocher , which is the belltower spirit, that the club die for the village, they talk that up but then at the same time they don't live it day to day in their lives.

“I think so much talent is wasted in France,” says Mehrtens, a tad despairingly. “That’s why they tend to get foreign tens over as well. Their French tens are talented players.

“If you look at Michalak and Trinh-Duc, they’re talented individual players but they’re not organisers; they’re not guys necessarily who read the game. They read the situation and have a crack with individual skill but they’re not guys who will move a team around the park very well.”

In France, that’s the number nine’s job. “But the thing is they resort to type. They can’t do it very well because they can’t be telling a ten what to do. They’re concentrating on their job. In the Anglo Saxon culture you want nines who aren’t afraid to bark at the forwards but your nine essentially is a guy who serves the ten and the ten is the guy who can see.”

The French are a welcoming people, not least to foreign players, though less so to foreign coaches, as Mehrtens discovered in his final year at Beziers, even if he is very sanguine about his own personal experience.

'A lot of passion'
In any case, Mehrtens believes there is much right about French rugby. "They've a good hard championships, with prestige. They've got a lot of talent, an abundance of talent throughout the country. They've got resources. They've got a lot of money. They've got the facilities and the support normally of the mayoralties. And they've got a lot of passion."

The flip side of this is that the French can be “blinkered by results” rather than being performance driven. As part of his coaching diploma in France, he attended a seminar on handling in Paris conducted by a French Sevens coach and animatedly leaps from his chair to demonstrate the drill.

“He does this big looping movement like an elephant’s trunk which is this old seventies pass; nothing about the wrist. It’s narrowing it down to the basics but they don’t get that.”

Improving skills in what Mehrtens calls "an Anglo-Saxon context" can be married to the French mentality. "But they're missing out on so much just because of the mentality. And it's not just their coaches, it's what they call the educateur or the formateur , who are the guys who coach at a young age, kids from six through to fourteen or fifteen."

“Honestly if they mobilised well, the French, they would be frightening. Honestly.” But French results at underage level ought to alarm them. “They don’t concentrate on the details, they basically haven’t progressed, and the big problem now is that they’ve got a generation of coaches now coming through who are from the 1980s. The rugby was a bit more simple then. There wasn’t as much structure in the game and like it or not it’s a necessary evil these days, structure.

'Bad habits'
"All they think about is that the solution to everything is go harder. For example if you say 'we need to work on our breakdowns, our cleanouts have been very, very ineffective', their response would be to get two groups of six guys to clean out against each other for 20 or 30 minutes, and all that does is reinforce bad habits. You don't learn anything. It's not about those little details, body position, reading a situation and communication."

This in turn leads to over-committing at the breakdown and in turn a preponderance of kicking from hand.

It is not co-incidence, Mehrtens agrees, that the ex-Bay of Plenty number eight Vern Cotter – the only non-French head coach in the Top 14 – has helped make Clermont the most effective team at the breakdown, and in turn enables them to use their backs and play more of a running game than anyone else.

“They are a very modern, professional set up and maybe it was just great timing that they found a good modern coach who was able to coach French and foreigners and it just gelled. Because they’ve been the most consistent team in France in the last five or six years.”

He adores the intense passion of Toulon and their "phenomenal" array of players. "They've got a goalkicker who can win you matches as well as a guy like Matt Giteau who is the creator. And I think the key for me with Toulon is getting that balance between Wilkinson running the game and Giteau running the game.

“It’s actually really hard to call. I’d love to see Toulon win just for the fact that they are so incredibly passionate, and from a purely rugby sense I’d like to see Clermont win because I think they get more out of their players.

“If I had to punt for one them I would punt on Clermont because with the culture they seem to have, the working together of cultures and the teamlines, I think that lends itself more to playing away from home.”