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'In my life, I have a philosophy that I want to understand the world'

Highly-rated French coach Régis Sonnes is working in Bandon after leaving the Top 14 behind.

RÉGIS SONNES IS wearing a beret and a Union Bordeaux Bègles coat when we meet at Bandon RFC on a damp, grey morning in West Cork.

The 44-year-old extends his hand and offers a greeting.

“Ça va?”

It’s a very different beginning to most rugby interviews but then Sonnes is very different to most rugby coaches. He is also involved in a rugby project in Bandon that is very different to most.

dav Sonnes gets into tactics with his Bandon RFC team. Source: Bandon RFC

Sonnes has been working with Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar School since moving to the town of around 6,500 people last summer, leaving behind a position as forwards coach of Bordeaux.

The rapidly-growing Top 14 club did their utmost to keep Sonnes – who is highly-rated within the French game – but after four years in Bordeaux, his mind was made up. Time for a new adventure.

As we take a seat in the warmingly traditional clubhouse overlooking Bandon’s main pitch just off the Clonakilty Road, Sonnes explains why he felt he had to move on.

“In my life, I have a philosophy that I want to understand the world,” he says. “I would like to live experiences that open my mind and offer that to my family. For me, rugby in the first part is a tool to do a world trip.

“It’s not a world trip for six months, it’s a world trip for life. If we stay all the time in the same town with the same friends, that’s good, but I want to understand more and to connect with the world.”

We speak in English, although Sonnes intermittently pauses to stress a word in French, keen to ensure that he is getting his message across clearly.

The Mont-de-Marsan native has always had a desire to traverse the globe. He spent four years in Spain from 2008 until 2012, working as the national team head coach for the final two seasons of that stint.

When he decided to leave Bordeaux last season, he targeted an English-speaking country in order to allow himself and his family an entirely new experience, a new “sensibility.”

But this adventure is about rugby too.

Bandon celebrates after the game Bandon Grammar are in the semi-finals of the MSSC. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“One, to be a better man and two, to be a better coach,” continues Sonnes. “I would like… perhaps when I will be a grandfather and my children’s children are around the fire and say, ‘What is rugby?’ and I can give a good reply.

“For me, rugby is not just about the highest level. It’s not only that – the Top 14 – but it’s also in a town like Bandon, or in Spain. It’s good for my progression. This experience will be great for me to be a better coach.”

So, how did Sonnes end up in West Cork of all places?

Bandon RFC are an ambitious club currently playing in Munster Junior League Division 1, who – by their own admission – had been bouncing up and down divisions since their most recent Junior League success in 1992/93.

With Bandon Grammar School making the transition to becoming an ‘A’ school in the last two years, the club’s rugby committee spotted an opportunity for a unique partnership that could bring in a coach of the highest possible calibre.

“That thing about the Munster jersey, where you’re looking after the jersey and minding it for the next guy, I think that’s applicable to this club,” says Bandon RFC vice-president Dan Murphy of the motivation behind seeking out someone like Sonnes.

“Fellas that have played rugby with the club feel a big responsibility for the club, in that our children are coming after us. As you get older in a club, you want to make sure it’s there for the next generation.”

The rugby committee felt a link with Bandon Grammar, a pooling of their resources, could provide them with the ability to hire a full-time coach who could work with club and school.

Bandon Grammar principal Ian Coombes was supportive of the idea and the search began towards the end of last season.

Bandon director of rugby Conor Slattery was central to the initial search. He knew then-Bordeaux captain Matthew Clerkin and got in touch with the back row, utterly unaware of Sonnes’ desire for a new adventure at that time.

image1 Sonnes on a Bandon RFC match day. Source: Bandon RFC

“I know just the guy,” came Clerkin’s reply and, after contacting Grenoble director of rugby Bernard Jackman for a reference, Slattery and Bandon reached out to Sonnes.

Sonnes was in Bandon to look around just five days after the first phone call, with a two-year contract agreed and signed within two weeks. Sonnes’ deal includes the option for a third year and already he is thinking about this project as a four-year one.

The club were naturally delighted with the capture, while the Grammar were similarly pleased.

“We were very impressed with his philosophical, calm approach to rugby – not just as a sport, but as an education for pupils,” says Coombes.

“The way he was looking at developing the game was very much in line with how a teacher would do it. He’s very much about developing the person, and from an educational point of view it was very sound.”

With the contract signed, Sonnes prepared himself for the move by reading up on Irish history.

“If you want to connect with the people, you have to understand the history,” he says. “Here in West Cork, it’s a huge region of the history, so I learned that.”

There was a fight – “a war” – with his 14-year-old daughter upon announcing the move to Ireland, but now she and her 12-year-old brother love life at the Grammar School so much that they have informed their father that they will be staying if he ever moves on.

An avid surfer, Sonnes has headed down the road to Inchydoney as often as possible, while he has also made the trip to Brandon Bay in Kerry to catch a few waves. All part of the cultural integration.

“I’m a surfer and I have connected with the surfer population, the farming population, the fishing population,” he says. “When you fish, you can see the country. I love the Guinness too, but that was from before!”

IMG_7216 Bandon RFC have an excellent set-up on the Clonakilty Road. Source: The42

Of course, rugby in Bandon is now Sonnes’ responsibility, so it’s fortunate that he has a strong pedigree in this department.

He was brought up in Mont-de-Marsan, learning the ‘general movement’ philosophy that made his move to Toulouse so much easier – Guy Novès being the head coach there and operating with similar beliefs about the game.

Sonnes, a back row, helped Toulouse to French titles in 1994 and 1995, before taking an unexpected break from rugby the following season, just as it was going fully professional.

“I stopped my career because I felt I had no energy,” says Sonnes. “I needed to stop and everyone said, ‘Why are you stopping now, you’re near the French team and Toulouse are winning?’

“I stopped because I didn’t want to be a shadow of myself. I want to be the best, so I look to be better as a man and a trainer. In my education and personality, I give my all but when I need to change, I change.”

Sonnes spent much of that year surfing but returned to help Toulouse to another championship success in 1997, before moving on to play for Brive and Agen, where he came across the coach who remains his mentor even today: Christian Lanta.

“He changed my personality,” says Sonnes. “He changed me from a soldier to a leader. I was very calm before, in the shadows of the team, I never spoke up in front of people.

“At 27, I went to Agen and after three or four months, he said, ‘Régis, you need to take responsibility.’ He helped to get out the leadership I had inside me.”

Highlighting that he does things his own way, the tail end of Sonnes’ playing career saw him create the Real Soldevilla club with some friends in the tiny town of Campet-et-Lamolère, close to Mont-de-Marsan, and he helped them to success in the ninth tier of French rugby in 2005.

Before becoming a professional, Sonnes had worked with mentally and physically disabled people in sports and had presumed he would return to that role, but Lanta convinced him to move into coaching with Agen after he retired.

Rugby Union - Heineken European Cup Quarter-Final - Wasps v Brive Sonnes in action for Agen back in 1997. Source: EMPICS Sport

A fifth-placed Top 14 finish for Agen in that first season, with Sonnes in charge of the forwards, showed there was promise.

Two seasons with Narbonne followed, then the move to Spain – initially with Canoe Rugby Club Madrid and then the national team – before Bordeaux came calling in 2012. Alongside Raphaël Ibañez and Joe Worsley, Sonnes was key to UBB’s rise up the Top 14.

Suffice to say, Sonnes is well-qualified to coach Bandon RFC’s first team, oversee their overall rugby structures and head up the development of Bandon Grammar’s rugby programme.

The club are firmly in contention for a shot at promotion into the senior game from Division 1 of the Munster Junior Leagues. Sonnes’ first task upon arrival was to back his players to use their handling and running skills on the pitch.

“My first impression was that there is a lot of kicking here, a lot of kicking,” says Sonnes. “I understand with the weather and the wind that you have to adapt, but even when the weather was good I saw a lot of kicking.

“Sometimes you have a five-on-two and the team with the five players kicks, a good kick and everyone cheers the good kick. I ask, ‘Why? They kicked with a five-against-two, they can play.’ I wanted to break that a little bit – we play first and then we look for the kick.”

Bandon Grammar are flying too, with their senior team into the semi-finals of the Munster Schools Senior Cup for the first time ever, while the school also made the Bowen Shield final in December. There are now around 180 boys playing rugby in the school.

Sonnes is keen to stress that the positive state of club and school in Bandon is not down to his work, and he feels fortunate to have inherited excellent foundations.

The likes of SCT head coach Denis Collins and his brother James, George Bradfield and many others have done superb work in the school – Munster Rugby’s School of the Year in 2015 - in recent years.

“It’s not because I’m here, it’s because they worked really well before and they have good players,” says Sonnes, who is enjoying the new challenge of working with schools players: “You need to be more like a father.”

Sweetnam met the Bandon U10s last month. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The atmosphere around the schools is superb, as they look towards their semi-final clash with Presentation Brothers College at Musgrave Park on Wednesday 1 March [KO 2pm].

“There’s a great buzz around the school about it and the supporters are certainly getting animated,” says principal Coombes, who played rugby in his own time as a student at the Grammar.

“A lot of parents and past pupils, it’s great to see, coming in to support it. There are lads in their 70s and 80s coming along to matches, as well as boys from the past few years.”

The school has even had its first girls match this season. Coombes explains that it is more of a social thing at the moment, but is enthusiastic about the interest being shown by female students.

Bandon alumni like Munster’s Darren Sweetnam and Gavin Coombes, the promising Ireland U20s back row, are showing that Bandon boys can mix it with the best.

“It’s huge, because it shows that the young guys who have played here can go all the way if they have the right structures around them and the right motivation,” says Coombes.

“Darren was the senior team out-half when he was in fourth year. I remember us playing Pres in Temple Hill in the cup in January 2010 and he put two penalties over from the halfway line. His line kicking was fantastic and he was only in fourth year.

“Munster have probably looked at Darren and thought, ‘Where did he come from?’

“They’ve probably said, ‘This guy Gavin Coombes looks like a prospect, these other players look like prospects.’ They began to see that maybe they could be taking a closer look here.”

Sonnes’ presence and expertise has been a huge boost, of course, while the Grammar have been delighted with the formal link-up with Bandon RFC, even if the rules around top-tier schools rugby mean players can’t play for school and club.

“When we became an A school, they came to the view that long-term… ok, they might lose some players for a few years, but they’d get back players who had played at a high intensity, maybe having played for Munster Schools.

A general view of Bandon RFC Munster A played at Bandon RFC last month. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“There was always a certain amount of synergy, but it’s more so now and we’re getting a lot of support from the club’s members at matches. It works vice versa too, and I think a lot of the boys will go back to the club afterwards or even players from other towns who get used to playing in Bandon. We’re also sharing facilities.”

Bandon RFC are equally happy with life under Sonnes. They generally have around 28 players attending senior training now, while attendances at home games have been as high as 300. Murphy and the rest of the club’s loyal backers are excited.

“People always want to follow a winner,” says Murphy. “Look at Munster over the last couple of years, where people had started to drift away from it, but are drifting back again.

“It’s the same old story here for the last couple of years – we had two old men and a dog watching the match. We’re getting people back watching the games, enjoying the games and people in the town are talking about rugby again.”

Bandon have 350 kids and around 65 coaches at the club every Saturday morning to play rugby and the challenge now is to ensure they remain on the books into the U14, U16 and U18 age grades.

There is happiness to have kept many of the 2013 All-Ireland U19 Cup-winning team in the club, with several of them now shining for the first team.

Bandon’s ladies team is attracting greater numbers than ever, while the facilities at the club are excellent now, with four pitches, space for another, all-weather surfaces, an ever-improving weights room and six dressing rooms.

The results on the pitch matter, of course, but Bandon are also thrilled to see Sonnes getting stuck into all aspects of life in West Cork.

“There’s a guy here Timmy Crowley, a farmer, he’s a past captain and he couldn’t make training last Friday night because of the calving,” explains Murphy. ”He sent a picture of the calf, so Régis jumped in the car and went out to help him.”

Bien joué.

Subscribe to The42 Rugby Show podcast here:

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Murray Kinsella

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