The French connection

CONNECTION: Former All Black Andrew Mehrtens talks rugby life in Europe.
CONNECTION: Former All Black Andrew Mehrtens talks rugby life in Europe.

Andrew Mehrtens isn't getting too heady about this new coaching lark.

France has been home for the Mehrtens clan since he linked with Toulon in 2007 but, following a stint with Paris club Racing Metro, they have been tucked away in the picturesque southern town of Beziers, just 15 kilometres from the Mediterranean.

As a club, Beziers, where Mehrtens is the latest head coach, has seen better days.

In their pomp, and we're going way back to the 1970s and 1980s here, they were one of the Goliaths of French rugby and amassed 10 club championship titles. Now they are trolling along the floor of the Pro D2 (second division) competition.

Just over a week ago, former All Blacks first five-eighth Mehrtens was promoted to head coach following the rapid-fire dumpings of predecessors Philippe Benetton and Claude Saurel.

Speaking from his home in Beziers, a historic town with history stretching back to Neolithic times and where the bullfighting festival attracts visitors from all over Europe, Mehrtens says he never planned for this.

When he joined the club in 2010 he was signed for three seasons as a player and assistant coach.

But when Benetton and Saurel were culled, all heads turned to Mehrtens. And in return, the 39-year-old has promised little.

The term of his contract has not been altered; it was always due to expire when the French season ends in June 2013.

"I was quite happy being an assistant or whatever," Mehrtens said in reference to his promotion.

"All I wanted to see was some sort of professionalism from the staff to actually let these guys play and learn some rugby and progress."

Making the transition from player to assistant coach last season forced him to grapple with the difficult task of bossing around men he previously played with, and that, he admits, has taken time.

"It's a slightly different relationship now and that's something you have to handle. I think I am getting better at the role, a lot better than I was last year."

Rugby has been a constant in the former Crusaders and Canterbury playmaker's life.

Between 1995 and 2004 he played 70 All Blacks tests before departing in 2005 for London club Harlequins.

Since leaving school, Mehrtens, who was 19 when he first played under All Blacks coach Steve Hansen at the High School Old Boys' club and was quickly elevated into Canterbury colours, has always earned his bread in rugby.

"I have never really seen myself as a career coach and I don't really want to be. I want to do something outside of rugby," he maintains.

"I want to, as much as I can, have my weekends free and hang out with my kids and things like that. "

Married to Jacq and with George, 4, and Ivy, 3, both born in France and able to speak the native tongue and English, a return to New Zealand is probable. Just when is uncertain.

If he can extract some decent results out of Beziers and is offered another contract, his new vocation could be stretched for a few more seasons.

He also knows that once out of the coaching loop it is too easy to be peeled away from the game's trends.

"I will see how well I do. I am still only being tested as a coach," he says.

"If I am enjoying it and contributing I am sure it will be nice to continue. But is not something I am anticipating as a career."

Although players are contracted - the most familiar for New Zealanders is former Highlanders loose forward Samiu Vahafolau - several of the Beziers representatives are amateurs.

Along with Vern Cotter, who is in charge of French powerhouse club Clermont, Mehrtens is the only New Zealander coaching in either of the two top divisions.

Both are fluent in French but foreigners have to pierce more than just the language barrier to win over the players.

The French locals are often suspicious as to whether outsiders possess their passion and they can expect intense scrutiny.

As a youngster, Mehrtens admired the flair and panache of French backline maestros such as Serge Blanco and Philippe Sella but notes the French love for aggression and physical clashes still takes priority in their domestic games.

While New Zealand teams look to expose opponents by playing with width and avoiding unnecessary contact, the French struggle to resist confrontation.

"They are quite steeped in tradition. They have a respect for the warrior nature of rugby but it means that for a lot of their game they are looking for the physical side," he says.

"They actually want to win the combat and actually go looking for it to win it."

During his career in New Zealand, Mehrtens responded best to coaches who retained their composure and treated their players with dignity.

Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith, he says, earned his respect for his measured, calm approach. For some French coaches that method would be treated with disdain.

"Here they are more about climbing into their players. You can see coaches on the sideline screaming during a game, spending 15 minutes just berating a guy for dropping the ball or taking the wrong option.

"You are just going ‘How on earth does that work? How do they ever produce some of the results they have?' It all comes back to their physical talent. If they could harness their talent like I believe we do in New Zealand, Australia and the Anglo-Saxon countries it would be incredible."

Brandishing the heavy stick is not one of Mehrtens' strengths, a skill-set he acknowledges he needs to improve in his new role.

French players respect authority and even appreciate it but he struggles to see himself as a ranter.

"It is an amazing country over here, full of complete contradictions. You need to smack them on the bum at times but that is not my strength. It's not something that's worked well in the good environments I have been involved in."."

The Press