‘Callous, cold and calculating’ - Fabien Galthié’s journey to the top

French coach has detractors but questionable man-management skills may be worth it

"The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end." Leon Trotsky.

Fabien Galthié may or may not appreciate the sentiment. The likelihood though is that he wouldn't care unduly. From the moment that he left behind a playing career as a scrumhalf that encompassed 64 caps for France, a Grand Slam and four World Cups to embrace coaching largely in the French Top 14, his modus operandi has polarised opinion amongst those who have played under him at Stade Francais, Montpellier and Toulon.

He has also engaged in skirmishes with club owners, presidents and administrators. His accession to the position of France’s head coach has left a trail to the summit festooned with broken relationships; of players who are willing to decry his methods in pejorative terms with words like ‘brutal,’ ‘bullying,’ ‘callous,’ ‘cold’ and ‘calculating.’

Raphael Poulain, a young winger who played under Galthié at Stade Francais, recounted an experience in his 2011 autobiography, When I was Superman, of the time when Galthié told him in a rather brutal, unsparing manner that he wasn't good enough to play in the French Top 14.

Poulain fired back: “Humanely, you are worth nothing. You should be banned from coaching. You tear your players apart like a dachshund goes after bad bits of barbecue.” He wasn’t alone in his view of Galthié’s man management skills.

Midi Olympique's Mark Duzan wrote a very revealing profile of the current French coach in which he canvassed a number of players who Galthié coached at club level to elicit their views. Jerome Fillol, who worked under him at Stade Francais, said: "I have nothing to say. I don't want to give it importance."

Jonathan Wisniewski (Toulon), ventured, "I don't waste my time, sorry," while Jean-Baptiste Peyras (Montpellier) said: "I respect the coach Galthié, he is very good. But I don't want anyone to go through what I went through for a year and a half in my workplace."

Former Scotland international number eight Johnny Beattie, who played under Galthié at Montpellier and described him as the "best tactical attack coach" he ever worked with, also highlighted the Frenchman's interpersonal shortcomings.

Beattie explained: “He (Galthié) struggled with being a decent human you want to buy into and work for. People bought into the fantastic rugby we played, not the culture or environment he would provide.” He also spoke of Galthié “burning bridges”, “destroying club cultures” and “humiliating” players in training sessions.

Duzan's personal experience was far from linear, describing Galthié when a young coach at Stade Francais as "(a) man (who) was courteous if aloof, unpredictable and rather austere on bad days." In contrast when Galthié worked for French television at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Duzan discovered "a man open, curious about the other and much more sensitive than had suggested (during) our first arm wrestling."

The journalist also pointed out that Galthié possesses many advocates in Laurent Labit, Jacques Brunel, from whom he took over as French head coach following the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Fabrice Landreau, Juan Martin Hernandez and Francois Trinh Duc and that even his most virulent detractors would concede that he is an excellent technical coach and a superb tactician.

Another highly respected writer on French rugby Gavin Mortimer spoke to a number of club owners in researching an article that appeared soon after Galthié's appointment as French coach. Max Guazzini, the president of Stade Francais when Galthié was a player and then coach said: "His carapace protects him because in fact he's sensitive, with true values, and asks himself a lot of questions."

Former Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal ventured: "He's (Galthie) a chess player. He's not a man-manager. One shouldn't forget that one is managing men and not robots."

A picture emerges from the scuttlebutt of a self-centred, ruthless, driven individual who can more easily relate to marquee players than those less able to fulfil his requirements on a pitch and that at club level, for those exposed to that corrosion on a daily basis, it took a hefty toll as he burned through relationships.

To support the first assertion it's worth recalling a story from his playing days. Ireland met France in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final. The respective captains that day were Keith Wood and Galthié, who had each indicated that their playing careers would finish with the next defeat.

Two outstanding rugby players, hugely driven, perhaps a quality they recognised in each other and one that spawned a friendship. In the build-up to that game Wood said of Galthié: “A man I’ve a huge amount of time and respect for. I get on very well with Fabien. We’re good mates. I enjoy his company and he’s a good man.

“I’ve always said it, I was very, very impressed with the way (Bernard) Laporte changed around France’s play in the last three or four years, and a key component of that is Fabien.”

Galthié, when apprised of Wood comments, responded: “I have already said he is a huge player and I have met him away from the field. We talked together. I cannot say that I truly know the man, but to my mind I think you play as you live.

“I think he might have a human dimension equivalent to the one has as a player. He concluded with perhaps the ultimate accolade from a French player to a foreign player: “Wood, c’est un Monsieur,” which essentially translates as ‘a class act.’

Galthié the player was forthright in his views, even when it necessitated clashes with coaches - he was overlooked several times for scrumhalves with less ability in the Test arena - he never balked and had an unswerving singularity of purpose which he championed in his coaching career, one that can overlook or ignore the collateral damage in human terms.

For years he aspired to the position of head coach but has had to bide his time as Philippe Saint-Andre, Guy Noves and Jacques Brunel predated him in the role but after the Japan World Cup FFR President Bernard Laporte turned a man he coached as a player.

It’s germane to return to Beattie’s prescient observation from that earlier interview. “Even back then, we all said this guy (Galthié) would be absolutely amazing in an international environment, where he’s not with players week-in, week-out. And it’s pretty evident that he is leading that resurgence with the French national team.”

There's no disputing what he's achieved. When Galthié took over he removed a cohort of senior figures that included, give or take, most in their thirties as he set in motion a plan to build a squad capable of winning the 2023 World Cup on home soil. Adding Shaun Edwards to the coaching ticket as defence coach is a masterstroke.

Galthié had no qualms about immediately promoting players from the 2018 and 2019 Under-20 World Cup winning French teams - Romain Ntamack, Cameron Woki, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Demba Bamba, all from the 2018 side are in the matchday 23 to take on Ireland in Paris - and has demonstrated great faith in championing the younger generation.

He sent a largely second string French side to Twickenham for the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup final - Yoram Moefana, Gabin Villiere, Woki and Anthony Jelonch played that day - that only succumbed to a full strength England side in extra time.

Last summer France, minus the majority of frontline players, narrowly lost the Test series 2-1 in Australia. Today's French fullback, Melvyn Jaminet, made his debut in the first Test against the Wallabies and subsequently went on to nail down the 15 jersey, which he has retained since.

A comprehensive victory over New Zealand in November offered further evidence that Galthié is ensconced in a coaching environment that best suits both his personality and style. If that continues to be a positive experience with the results to match then the means to success may indeed be justifiable along the way to next year's World Cup.

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