Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Peter Bills: A play on words is essential for trio

You can usually rely on soccer manager Harry Redknapp to come up with some pearl of a line to illustrate his point.

Redknapp, talking about his Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko after his goal won the Barclay’s Premier League match against West Ham last week, admitted he was sending the boy off for English lessons this summer.

‘It’s chaos on the training field’ Redknapp is reported to have said. ‘His interpreter is running alongside him on the training ground, relaying our messages to him. Sometimes it’s the interpreter who puts the ball in the back of the net.’

I’m not sure whether Harry was joking or not. But the point he raises is especially relevant to all sports, rugby included.

Three England players announced recently they’re off to French clubs next season. James Haskell and Tom Palmer of London Wasps will join the Paris-based club Stade Francais while Wasps centre Riki Flutey has signed for Brive.

Clearly, it is going to be imperative that all three learn French as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Stade’s Australian coach Ewen McKenzie is already arranging lessons for them from a local teacher.

“It’s essential they get to grips with the language,” says McKenzie, who understands quite a bit of French after just one season with the club.

The problems are very apparent if a coach in particular cannot communicate freely with his players, just like Redknapp. New Zealander Tana Umaga not only went straight from playing to coaching French club Toulon, without much idea of French. Such a task would have exerted a genius in both fields, coaching and language. Given that the New Zealander, whilst undoubtedly a fine player in his time, was a genius neither as a coach nor French speaker, predictably the idea crashed in flames.

Sale’s French coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who will return to France this summer to coach Toulon after several years in English rugby, says it is essential someone has command of the language of the country in which he is working.

“Without that, it is very difficult indeed,” he told me. “You cannot explain things to many players and it becomes frustrating, for them and you. I think you must be able to have conversations in the language of the team.”

Years ago, back in the 1980s, Terry Venables and his assistant Allan Harris coached Barcelona. The only way they could communicate with most of their players was by hiring a Barcelona-based, full time English journalist, Graham Turner, who spoke excellent Spanish and Catalan.

Turner’s work ensured Venables could do his job. Without him, it would have been impossible. Even so, it was far from perfect.

A great many South African rugby players have flocked to France in recent times. Alas, several such as former Springboks Ashwin Willemse and Lawrence Sephaka, have gone home again after a single season. The language barrier was a significant factor in both cases, and there have been plenty more.

You can’t be careful enough in a foreign country. One English player asked for some preservatives at breakfast, expecting to be offered some jam or marmalade. The waitress went red in the face and giggled. Why? Preservatives in French, means condoms. And you can’t ask for canapes because it’s a sofa.

It is now down to professional players to gain a decent grasp of the language in a country where they work. In this day and age, comic cuts such as the Pavlyuchenko story can hardly be tolerated for long.



Jake’s the man to go down a StormSouth African Super 14 side the Stormers played the final game of their long Australia/New Zealand tour earlier today. It was in faraway Wellington, right down at the bottom of New Zealand ’s north island, against the Hurricanes. The last time I was there, the journey back to London took 30 hours.

I shouldn’t think there is much doubt that the South Africans sprinted to the departure gate, so eager were they to get onto the plane home.

It’s been a disastrous season for the South African franchise of whom so much was expected. Coach Rassie Erasmus, in his second season, was expected to do great things with a squad that included Springboks like Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger, Percy Montgomery, Conrad Jantjes, Andries Bekker, Brian Mujati, Luke Watson, Peter Grant and Tonderai Chavhanga.

Alas, the Stormers have been pitiful, both at home and away. They won’t get anywhere near the semi-finals.

So the word in Cape Town is that Erasmus, who has also managed to upset the local media by refusing to give them access much of the week and also sponsors, could be on his way out.

And a well known figure is emerging as favourite for the job. South African World Cup winning coach Jake White (pictured) has been out of rugby since the 2007 tournament in France . White admits he’s missed the game and would love to return. As his home is in Cape Town , it seems likely he will take over at some point soon.

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