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Path of most Resistance: French coach takes inspiration from war hero

Date

Brendan Gallagher

Philippe Saint-Andre believes his grandfather's war-time courage, pride and stoicism can act as an motivator to France, writes Brendan Gallagher.

Emotional attachment … French coach Philippe Saint-Andre.

Emotional attachment … French coach Philippe Saint-Andre. Photo: AFP

Up in the small and otherwise unremarkable mountain village of La Chapelle-en-Vercors 64 kilometres south-west of Grenoble lies the Ecole Primaire Publique Philippe Saint-Andre, daytime home to 69 boisterous French infants.

It is named after a French hero, a man who fought like a dog for his country, before being shot dead by the Germans along with 16 compatriots in a nearby mountain cave one July morning in 1944.

Until now France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has not spoken of his grandfather - probably a combination of modesty and reticence - but over a quiet lunchtime coffee at the France training camp in Marcoussis this week he revealed that, since taking the job of coach, it is always in his mind: the humility and the pride.

''That school is named after a far greater man than I will ever be,'' he says. ''I am always embarrassed when people assume it must be a tribute to me. No, that school commemorates a proper hero and a man who I never knew but love, a man who inspires me always.

''I have always carried his story with me but I started to think more deeply about him when I was appointed as France coach after the World Cup. For a very rare moment I had thinking time and a chance to assess what I wanted from the France team I am privileged to coach. My first thought was my grandfather and his comrades in the Vercors maquisards and their great qualities which I want my teams to embrace.

'' I want to produce a great XV of France but I want a little more than that. I want a group of good people that France can look up to …

''I don't want to hear us complaining about defeat and referees and showing arrogance in victory or being bad losers. I want us showing complete passion, courage and professionalism always.

''Many people in France are having a difficult time in this world, but my grandfather's generation suffered beyond imagination. When you are a sportsman being paid for doing what you love, you are lucky. Be stoic. Life could be worse.

''It has been busy in the Six Nations but I have spoken a little to the players about this, we will talk more in the summer. I did not go into the exact details of my grandfather but I explained that the virtues I want from a French rugby team are those shown by him and his friends. Some of the players seemed to know the story a little and were very receptive.

''Philippe Saint-Andre snr was a member of the French Resistance from the start of hostilities until his summary execution by an SS patrol. La Chapelle-en-Vercors and surrounding villages were at the epicentre of that defiance and there are scores of small monuments and wooden crosses to the fallen on lonely mountain roads. They all read: 'Mort pour la France'.

''Vercors was the only part of France that never submitted to German rule or opted for peace and my grandfather was at the very heart of that. He was the mayor, already director of the school and he played wing for the local rugby club when it all started.

''For months on end he would live high in the mountains, sleep in the pine forests or our limestone caves with his comrades. They lived like animals. Sometimes in the middle of the night he would suddenly arrive at home for a few hours to see his wife and my father Serge who was very young, just two years old.

''Then one night in 1944, soon after the Allied forces had landed in the north, the Germans sent 20,000 troops into the region looking to flush out the Resistance - they had seen French flags fly from our mountain tops … My grandfather and 15 others were sleeping in a remote limestone cave.

''It was very early on July 25. The Germans discovered them and shot everybody dead in the cave. An execution. Then they went to the village of La Chapelle and burned everything … including my grandmother's house. She had nothing left except a few pictures. Nothing.

''The village was awarded the Ordre de la Liberation and its highest honour, the gold medal, but they're mountain people and rarely speak of these things … When I do it makes me very proud and emotional. It is a story sportsmen should listen to.''

As we part, Saint-Andre is reminded that much of the French Resistance work around Vercors was co-ordinated in London by Sir Colin McVean Gubbins, the head of Special Operations Executive who was said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming's M in the James Bond books.

Saint-Andre breaks into a smile for the first time. ''So really my grandfather 'worked' for the boss of James Bond? Incroyable.''

Telegraph, London

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