Philippe Saint-André is almost unique. After being a keen spectator in 1987, he went on to play, captain and coach France at a Rugby World Cup, taking part in a total of three editions – two as a player (1991 and 1995, when he led the side) and one as a coach (2015) – with varying fortunes.

However, his first Rugby World Cup experience came in 1987 in front of the television. Philippe was just 20 and already had a few years of rugby under his belt. "I was on an end-of-year trip with my university rugby team," he recalls for World Rugby.

"We're in Martinique or Guadeloupe. I'll always remember this final because I was so jet-lagged. At 6am, we hadn't slept, but we hadn't forgotten the kick-off. I remember that final, of course, and the semi-final with the victory over Australia and Serge Blanco's try."

Blanco was the first great French star of international rugby, the incarnation of French flair, the man everyone watches and admires. The same man who the following year slept in the bed next to Saint-André.

"Yes, it's amazing," laughs the Montpellier director of rugby. "It was Jacques Fouroux who was coaching at the time. I was on a training camp in the 48-strong extended group and Serge Blanco was in my room, on a bunk bed, and I slept above my hero.

"At breakfast, he did his own thing, eating saucisson. And I said, 'Bring me some saucisson too! Maybe it'll bring me some genius!" It was quite exceptional to see players who, in my opinion, were untouchable. And then, a few months later, I was in the room with them, living with them. And I was lucky enough to play a lot of matches with them...

"But above all, I could never have imagined that four years later I'd be taking part in the second World Cup in history and as a player in the French team!"


This was his second Rugby World Cup experience. In 1991, Saint-André was young. "I was concentrating on trying to earn my place because there was a generation behind me with many, many caps," he says.

"I was a bit of a virgin with Fabien Galthié around guys who had 50 or 60 caps. The preparation went well and I was extremely lucky to have played in all the World Cup matches. Unfortunately, we got off to a bad start. We went out in the quarter-finals (19-10) at the Parc des Princes against our best enemies, England."

That year was also the first Rugby World Cup in which Galthié, the current coach of the French national team, took part. "Along with Jean-Luc Sadourny, we're a bit like the youngsters in the group. And they both played at Colomiers," recalls Saint-André.

"Behind them, the guys were eight, nine or 10 years older than us. So automatically, you get closer to people of your generation. With Fabien Galthié, right away we saw someone who was gifted, someone who had a lot of ease, someone who was distinguished. He was an exceptional player."

The quarter-final defeat to England has gone down in the annals of rugby history, a brutally physical affair where it didn't take much for tempers to flare. 

England had devised a plan to negate the threat of Blanco. Disgusted, he disappeared to his home in Biarritz as soon as the game finished. It was on this occasion that Will Carling uttered his famous line: "Sorry, good game", which, according to Carling, now a friend of Saint-Andre, was not delivered with any irony. At the time, it didn't feel that way to the French.

But Saint-Andre says it was an important moment for him as a player and later as a captain. 

"I think that for me, as a player, as a leader, and then as captain, it was a match that made me grow and that made me grow quickly. Because when you lose a World Cup quarter-final at home, you watch the film again and you say to yourself what went wrong during the week or during the preparation," says Saint-André.


Saint-André experienced Rugby World Cup 1995 with even greater emotion, as he captained the French team in South Africa in a tournament like no other. 

"We're not going there to take part, but we're really going there to win it," Saint-André says, recalling that at that time a whole generation was experiencing its swansong. "If we're going to win one, it's this one, because it's our last shot," his thoughts were.

Rugby World Cup 1995 is considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Rugby stood on the verge of professionalism, Jonah Lomu became a legend and South Africa united a nation.

For France, it was also eventful. Pierre Berbizier had come back to coach the team having been dismissed four years earlier and Fabien Galthié came back and played at the end of the tournament, to replace the injured Guy Accoceberry, having been overlooked in the first place. Maybe the scrum-half's decision to sign for six months for South African club False Bay was a visionary one as it enabled him to be in the right place at the right time.

At the time, Les Bleus were not yet professional players and Saint-Andre was doing a balancing act. "I played in Clermont-Ferrand, I had a communications company, I looked after the club's sponsorship, I had a brasserie, a restaurant, I managed 100 people. I play rugby, but I'm also a businessman. I had to earn a living," recalls Saint-André.

Once in South Africa though, Saint-Andre and his charges only had one thing on their minds – to get their hands on the trophy. 

"When you see South Africa as world champions and what that has done for the country, you think it's exceptional. But I'm left with an incredible image," he says, as France lost in the semi-final to South Africa before winning the match for third place against England.

"We're all in the stadium for the final, behind the posts, all standing. And then the anthems start, and I see the players in tears saying to me: 'Philippe, we should be on the pitch'. And that's when you say yes, even though it was a great game for South Africa.

"It was one of the matches (the semi-final loss) that was the hardest for me, as a player, to digest. Because we were that close to a World Cup final."


In 2011, France had come as they had come before to winning their first Rugby World Cup, losing the tightest of finals against New Zealand.

But, post-tournament, there was a changing of the guard in the coaching set-up with Marc Lièvremont leaving and Saint-André, Patrice Lagisquet (the current head coach of Portugal) and Yannick Bru coming in. 

After a good start, the mandate quickly took a turn for the worse, and defeat after defeat followed. A fourth-place finish in the Six Nations in 2012 was bad enough but worse was to come the following year when the wooden spoon was collected for the first time since 1982.

A disconnect in the player pathway between club and country and the high percentage of foreign players in the Top 14 were contributory factors in France's failure. 

France's players rolled up their sleeves and worked hard, harder than they had ever done before to get in the best physical shape to try and muscle their way out of the malaise ahead of RWC 2015. 

Three months of high-intensity preparation involving watt bikes in hypoxia, a mini Tour de France on mountain bikes, a commando course with the French special forces, and then a rigorous training camp in the countryside surrounding London.

The anecdotal coup de grâce came on 16 September, when the French team bus that was parked opposite the restaurant where they were dining one night got a parking ticket. Really, nothing was going right.

Except perhaps the matches. France won three in a row (Italy, Canada and Romania) before a defeat to Ireland saw them paired with New Zealand in the quarter-finals. They conceded four tries in the first half and five in the second, for a final score of 62-13. A wreck.

"I thought we were capable of beating the Irish and finishing first," sighs Saint-André. "It was an incredibly intense final pool game and we self-destructed because the Irish went on to take 30 points against Argentina. And we took 50 points against the Blacks.

"It's a terrible thing to say, but over those four or five years, the All Blacks had put 60 points past all the nations. The only problem was that we caught them in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The last 20 minutes were very long ...

"When you're in charge of a team and the French team and you take 50 or 60 points against the All Blacks, it's normal for people to be frustrated, for people to abuse you, to whistle ... that's part of the job. It's more complicated when you've got your wife and children in the stadium, and your son, who's a bit young, says to you, 'but Dad, you didn't kill anyone'. So after that, what's important is to try and preserve your family."

PSA's exile from coaching lasted several years before he returned to France, to work with Montpellier. It's been a big success story. "Three and a half years ago, we were French champions. As they say: after the rain, the sun comes out. That's the beauty of life and the beauty of sport, especially top-level sport!"