A couple of seasons you were coaching against each other for Bath and Leicester – how are you enjoying coaching together? What are the main differences to English rugby?
Mike Ford [Toulon head coach] It has been brilliant. Mad but brilliant.
Richard Cockerill [Toulon forwards consultant] Everything is different. Match days are different. The noise of the crowd and what they think constitutes a high tackle. The concept of sportsmanship is very different. It is not very logical is probably the best way to look at it. It makes me look quite calm and thoughtful.
MF Half the team is English-speaking and the Test players in particular would understand the way we coach – the structure and the detail. Then you have the French guys who don’t do as much in detail and are very emotional. The way they play well is by firing them up. Then you have to find a way to gel that together on top of the pressure you have of Toulon being expected to win every game because of what they did three years ago.
RC Everything is a little bit more kneejerk in France [Toulon announced last week that Ford will leave at the end of the season, while Cockerill is moving to Edinburgh]. It always has been. You are always in the moment and what happened today, whether that is the result or the league table. That means the structure and the environment around a club are very different. The foundations are not the same. The French sides are very here and now.
What’s been the strangest experience?
RC We got a request to bring forward our training so our supporters who watch us don’t miss their lunch hour. It is not strange because it is so normal.
MF Cockers being nice to people. That was strange.
RC There so many things. If there’s a 10am meeting and if it starts at 10.10am then it is sort of on time. Then when the meeting starts, someone will walk in and it’s handshakes all round and for those who know him well it is a kiss on both cheeks. He’ll ask what you’ve had for breakfast and whether you have slept well. You think “hang on, we were trying to have a meeting here.”
MF Saying hello is actually more important than the meeting; whereas in England it is “we need to get everything sorted”. No one would dare walk in.
RC There’d have been blood on the carpet if people had turned up 10 minutes late. You can tell everyone at Edinburgh that if they turn up 10 minutes late then they are going to be in deep s---.
MF Underline that in red.
RC They will wander in and think “what’s he angry about? I’m only 10 minutes late.” You can spend all your emotional energy dealing with that and fighting that but that is probably not going to change, especially in the short term I am here. So actually my priority should be let’s coach as well as I can.
How has that challenged you as coaches?
MF It has been brilliant for us. When Cockers was director of rugby at Leicester and he is running everything, how does he develop? Everyone comes to him because he is expected to have all the answers. It was the same with me at Bath. Actually you don’t have all the answers and coming here has been brilliant for us in that respect.
RC Coming from Leicester, all that team I either signed or came through the academy while I was there. They are all internationals but you are comfortable because you know them so well. When you walk in a room with Duane Vermeulen, Juan Smith, Leigh Halfpenny it is a different test. You have to think this has to be right. If your first session is c--- then they’ll all think your c---.
MF You can’t get away with being a bad coach here. They’ll pick you up and challenge you. Certainly I am with guys like Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell. They are very strong personalities and you have to be crystal clear in what you want to do and the reasons why. If you don’t have the answers then you’re in trouble.
On the flipside, is there anything that English rugby can learn from the way things are done in France?
RC There’s a lot about their work-life balance that they do exceptionally well. When it is eating time, it is time for eating. They understand rugby is important but so is lunch and dinner. In England, especially as coaches, everything is rugby and rugby comes first, which goes to the detriment of other things.
MF We have probably learnt one or two lessons, especially when we exchange stories about how we were both driven in England and probably didn’t take the blinkers off.
RC Maybe they have got that right. Another thing I found in England is you do all the players’ homework for them, you cut it up and then say “there you go”. Here because some of the detail they would like isn’t available, they have to find that out themselves and then have discussions as a playing group. They then start to lead and coach each other which is very different to how the English model is. There are parts of that are really good. Then there are parts that are really frustrating because they’ll start having a debate on the field and then you think “hang on, can you just do what we agreed”.
How would you sum up pressure at Toulon? Is it on a par with international game?
MF I would say so.
MF Our owner [Mourad Boudjellal] only cares if you have won or lost. It doesn’t matter about the performance, injuries or missed kicks.
RC I have a lot of respect for him. This club was in Pro D2 10 years ago and he has spent a lot of his own money to set up a business model which pays for itself. That’s amazing when you consider the costs that come with that. He has taken them from Pro D2 to European and French champions. He put his money on the table and made it work.
You have a Champions Cup quarter-final away to Clermont on Sunday – where do you feel Toulon are at the moment?
RC A couple of years ago when Leicester played Toulon at home and I was saying “they’re a bunch of mercenaries and they only play for the money.” Then when I turn up they are saying “aren’t you the bloke who called us a load of mercenaries?”. Actually there are so many good people behind the scenes here from Tom Whitford [the team manager] to the kit men. There are lot of people who put a lot of hard work in. The supporters are fantastic, the stadium is great and it is a beautiful part of the world.
MF Before I came here I spoke a lot to Jonny Wilkinson. You find it hard to believe what he is saying to you about the way they prepared as a team. They bought the best players in the world and some big leaders. Those leaders ran the show, but they are not here anymore and so that’s a new challenge, a new chapter for the club. We were there to be shot at. We were top of the tree and other teams improve and are chasing you. We are not the champions any more and it maybe took them a couple of years to realise that. Certainly we had our eyes wide open that they didn’t win anything last year, they changed the coaches and there has been some more upheaval this year .
RC Just a bit.
MF That’s the reality. This is where we are at. Saying that, you saw the team out there training today everyone is an international. It is still a fantastic team.
RC We are supposedly having a bad season but we are still well in the mix. In the Top 14 we are in fourth place and we have a quarter-final away to Clermont so who knows what will happen there? They should win. They are on better form. They are more consistent. The reality is all the pressure is on them. But it’s Toulon and they seem to have this thing about playing Toulon for whatever reason.
I have a lot of connections with Clermont [Cockerill played there for two years]. I love the town, the people, my son was born there but not on Sunday afternoon. I will be just another Toulon mercenary.