Olivier Magne’s record speaks for itself but the former France flanker also has plenty to say.
And when he speaks, we should all listen. After all, having won four Grand Slams and another Six Nations title to boot, Magne won almost everything there was to win with Les Bleus.
He even added a fifth Grand Slam to his collection as coach of the French Under-20s side.
In our Big Interview he looked back on his playing career, that spell with Les Bleuets and his vision of modern rugby:
In fact, there are just three men in the modern era who have won four Grand Slams. England prop Jason Leonard, France second row Fabien Pelous and Magne.
The sort of flanker you just love to watch, he could play in the centres if required, was always looking for the ball and loved the beautiful game.
A natural successor to Laurent Cabannes in the French back row, his progression to Les Bleus was inevitable and arrived under the tutelage of coaching duo Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela.
A FLYING START
That French team would play from anywhere, they would attack out wide and would constantly look for space. Magne fitted in straightaway.
He came off the bench for his debut against Wales in 1997 and a fortnight later was promoted to the starting line-up for Le Crunch at Twickenham. It was that game against England that truly launched this version of Les Bleus.
He recalls: “In 1997, after a long path from 1992 when I had played in all the age-group sides, my first cap came against Wales at the Parc des Princes, where I was a replacement. I had the chance to play the last 20 minutes and that was my introduction to the Five Nations.
“The coaches at the time, Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela, then announced to me that I would be starting at Twickenham for a match which was obviously important and one that everyone in France, and both countries was waiting for.
“I found myself starting with a happy ending. A win at Twickenham, the temple of rugby against our favourite enemies.
“The match that launched the squad, a squad which went through to 2001, 2002 even 2003, was the win in England that kicked it off and validated the work that had been done by the players and the coaches to put in place a game plan that was easy to identify.”
That 23-20 win at Twickenham was something of a surprise, a first French win there in a decade, and above all because they trailed 20-6 after an hour before a remarkable comeback.
The final game saw France welcome Scotland to Paris, and they were rampant on their way to a 47-20 victory including a length-of-the-field score finished by Magne, and another that he set up for Laurent Leflamand.
“We kicked on with another win over Scotland at the Parc des Princes to win the Grand Slam. To start like that is pretty exceptional, it was a fairy tale come to life. Just to wear the France jersey and then there are all the memories that come back to you, the memories of being a child, so just to play in the Five Nations is exceptional.
“What I liked in the final game was that we were able to reproduce what the coaches had asked for us. It was total rugby, expansive, looking for space with the desire to play from anywhere on the pitch.
“There were tries from nearly 80 metres out where lots of players touched the ball, made the pass at the right moment, made the right decisions, I felt it showed everything that is good about French rugby, how we like to play, and which not only is enjoyable for the players but also the fans, even those who aren’t French but appreciate rugby à la française. You can call it French flair, it was very much present that day against Scotland at the Parc des Princes and that’s what everyone appreciated.”
GLORY AT WEMBLEY
While the Grand Slam in 1997 came as something of a surprise, the follow-up a year later was confirmation of just how good that French team was, with a remarkable finale against Wales at Wembley and a 51-0 victory.
Thomas Castaignède pulled the strings that day but for Magne, the strength of that team was the way all the players could show their individual talents through the team.
“In 1998 it was a really interesting year in terms of the level of play because on the pitch you had 15 players who spoke and played the same rugby and you saw some excellent things. It was some really good rugby and we really enjoyed it.
“All those individual talents were able to shine as part of the team. Thomas (Castaignède) is one of those individual stars who brought a lot to the team, but the team also gave him a lot and allowed him to express himself in the best possible way. That match at Wembley was the climax of that French identity with the intention of constantly being in support of the man with the ball, of keeping the ball alive, scoring and being efficient. Because it’s great to play that sort of rugby, but you have to be efficient, you have to be able to win, to score tries, and that’s what happened that day against Wales, in an amazing setting with an incredible history. To be able to win 51-0, that was a standout moment and it’s still an amazing memory.”
With two Grand Slams in as many seasons in the Five Nations, Magne could not have asked for more, but of course it could not last.
A rivalry with England followed, and while England won the World Cup to Magne’s eternal regret, Les Bleus did win the first Grand Slam in the Six Nations era a year earlier, followed by another in 2004. And Magne was able to appreciate those a little more.
“When I started in 1997 we won the Grand Slam quite quickly and so I said to myself it’s something you can aim for every year. The next year, in 1998, we did it again, and then in 1999, when we didn’t win the Grand Slam, I realised that it’s not as easy as that.
“It’s actually really hard, it’s incredibly difficult and so that’s why in 2002 and 2004, those Grand Slams I savoured a little more because you realise how hard it is to go and win that grail, the Grand Slam.
“I was really grateful to be able to play in a team and with players who had allowed me, from an individual perspective, to reach that sort of achievement. It’s something we shared with everyone. Those are things that no one can take away from you and I think it shows the quality and depth of French rugby and the potential we have when we try to win titles.
“We were lucky enough in 2002 to win the Grand Slam, with a new coach and players who were reaching their peak. The majority of the players I was with, Pelous, Ibanez, Dominici, Dourthe, we were from the same generation and had come through the age group ranks together and were reaching our peak. That Grand Slam was a confirmation of the quality and maturity of those players and also the collective maturity with new players coming through, Rougerie, Michalak, who strengthened the squad to prepare for the 2003 World Cup. Unfortunately that World Cup got away from us, but in the early 2000s, with the Grand Slam in 2002 and another in 2004, it was a time where we were able to take advantage of that maturity to win a number of titles.”
Magne made his final appearance in the Championship in 2006, winning another title, albeit without a Slam because of an opening round defeat in Scotland.
TRANSITION INTO COACHING
He went into coaching after retirement, with Brive, the Greek national team and then the France Under-20s where he served as forwards coach alongside Pelous. And that period allowed Magne the chance to get another taste for the Championship.
“The atmosphere is the same and to be able to work with France Under-20s for three years, that took me back a bit. I found it really fun because you see former players who are working on the coaching staff of the other teams. Those three years with the Under-20s were great, and then one year we won the Grand Slam so that was really cool.
“The idea of playing the Championship with the Under-20s, the first objective is not to win, it’s to get the players ready for the highest level, for the France team, so that they can play well and now we see that those players are succeeding at the highest level, the Duponts, Ramos, Penauds, all those players who came through the Under-20s and who I was lucky enough to coach.
“There are players at age group level who stand out, who have different aptitudes. When you have the chance to regularly coach young players, the coach’s eye allows you to see players who at some point or another will make it with the senior France team. Antoine Dupont was one of those players who was already doing exceptional things with the Under-20s and he is continuing to do so which is great.”
WHAT NOW FOR LES BLEUS
Dupont will be absent this week against Scotland, but he typifies the new French team that came so close to winning the Guinness Six Nations last year.
Unbeaten so far in 2021, the French have backed up those performances, but Magne remains cautious about the team’s progression.
“The France team are playing better, but it remains fragile. We have to be vigilant still. The French team is coming off a very difficult period over the last ten years without many results and a rugby that we didn’t really recognise.
“It’s a France team that is finding its feet again with a new generation and new players but the other teams have also worked hard over the last ten years and have moved ahead. So even though I’m enthusiastic about this France team, which is rediscovering its rugby with excellent players, it’s still very fragile and we have to remain vigilant, not believe that the hard work is done.
“I’m happy to see the young players who are enjoying themselves with the France team because the idea is to have a good team, try to enjoy yourself and those moments, and then go and get the wins while playing well. That’s what we like in France, a team that enjoys itself and wins.
“The idea is to play for one another and above all to speak the same rugby language. That is to say that when a player, notably the player carrying the ball, makes a decision, the others have to be able to read that decision and to react accordingly. When Dupont makes a break, the others know exactly how to react to allow him to pass, to keep the ball alive and to score tries, so it’s great to see most of the players in the team who speak the same rugby language and are able to understand each other on the pitch and it’s a measuring stick to win matches at the highest level.”
In terms of what they need to do next, Magne is clear on where there is room for improvement.
“The progress of the French team now will come through how it manages its attacking game. They are very strong on turnover ball, they defend very well and manage to turn the ball over and counter-attack, but for now in terms of the attacking game, that is where there is lots of work to be done.
“You can sense that it’s a team that is trying to find a level of cohesion to be able to attack when necessary, to hold onto the ball for long periods and put together long passages of possession to break down a good defence. To find solutions in the attacking game plan, that’s a long-term project and I hope in the next couple of years, and in the Championship, we will see an attacking game put in place that allows the team to have a complete game.”
If they can produce that sort of complete game, then this French team might be able to start dreaming of matching Magne’s exploits in blue.