“We will forever be the first”: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde confides for the first time since his departure from the MHR

“We will forever be the first”: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde confides for the first time since his departure from the MHR

Jean-Baptiste Elissalde a entraîné le MHR de janvier 2020 à novembre 2023. Midi Libre – JEAN-MICHEL MART

Former MHR coach, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, speaks for the first time since his departure from Montpellier on November 18. The opportunity to look back on his three years spent in Hérault and the context of his eviction.

First, how are you?

It’s okay, it’s a bit long. When you're in the washing machine as a trainer, you don't notice everything that's around. When you're gone, other things matter more. You take the time to take care of your family, your loved ones, those who usually support you. It’s your turn to put up with them. There are long times but it feels good to breathe. I'm staying in rugby for a bit by watching some videos, matches and working for your colleagues at L’Equipe. It leaves me awake.

It’s important not to completely cut off ?

You shouldn't. Then I won't succeed, it's my passion. I have to work, put myself in the coaches' shoes and take notes. How I would have played, what strategy I would have adopted… I am also writing new things for a new project. I'll take care of what.

Let's rewind a few weeks. On November 18, you were still "head coach" of Montpellier and you suffered a sixth loss in a row in Perpignan. The next day, you are no longer at the club. Did you feel danger lurking ?

Obviously, when you lose, you're in danger. Even more so here, given the club's past. This is a little less true in certain clubs which have more stability. But you notice that out of fourteen Top 14 staff, twelve have changed in recent months. 

Now how I felt it happen ? It was weird. In the week before the match, I was in contact with Mohed Altrad. He was looking for solutions. Little by little, I felt like something was up. On the field, in training, we had changed the methodology. Richard (Cockerill, manager) had taken a step back, feeling that he was doomed. We didn' #39;is not far from doing something in Perpignan (23-16), we have the opportunity to lead 17-0 if we don't let the ball go in the in-goal. nbsp;The next day, I received a phone call telling me that I was on vacation, as happens at times like these. It wasn't a surprise, considering what was said around the club the last few days.

Also read: "We were dying. There, we relive " : Mohed Altrad talks about the situation of the MHR, Cockerill, Elissalde, Laporte, Schmidt…

What was he saying to himself ?

I felt it a little before. When I started hearing about Patrice (Collazo), Bernard Laporte in the middle of the week… I made up my mind. And I remember going into the locker room against Perpignan and telling the guys: "Stay together". It was going to happen.

Did you know what you were accused of ?

The only thing the president reproaches me for over the last three years is not having acted as an informer or having denounced Richard's methods. It's not in my upbringing. I am the son of a coach, the coach is always right, even when he is wrong. I always believed I could change things by talking with him, by trying to regain control of the training methodology. But he had his character too. In front of you, he always said: "I'm the boss". It was a bit of the same speech with us. Perhaps he had forgotten what the Top 14 was. He had very harsh management with certain players. 

Also read: "There was a form of terror" : MHR president Mohed Altrad explains the departure of Richard Cockerill

Many regrets

Do you have any regrets ?

Yes, several. In my area of ​​action, I should have imposed a change in training methods. What we were doing was too long and boring, very different from the two previous seasons. It burned the guys. Physically and mentally.

Richard's mistake, I think, is not having adapted to his environment. French players are not English players. The Top 14 is not that of England or Scotland. We no longer had a spring. We were amorphous on the ground, not good at conquest. It was complicated to exist. When the defeats come one after the other and the worm is in the apple, it's difficult to turn back. 

In the last week before Perpignan, I managed to regain control but the die was already cast. Paradoxically, it had been a great week. The players still had resources. I am convinced that we could have resurfaced, as they do today. There are resources in this team, which has already experienced this three years ago. I just wanted to take control without killing Richard, because I'm not like that.

What else ?

My other regret is not being able to accompany my "teammates" of training. Les Joan Caudullo, Benoît Paillaugue, Anthony Floch, Damien Florio, Jesse Mogg or even a "Fufu" (Ouedraogo), which we put in the offices to work on the identity of this young club. 

The year of the title, Philippe (Saint-André, then sports director) asked me to work on a project on training. How to have an efficient, inexpensive training center to bring out young people and free up salary caps for stars. Before we raise the Shield, I announce to the offices that I want to fulfill this mission at least until the end of my contract (2025). And this, even if I am kicked out of the professional group. Whatever my fate, I wanted to continue this mission.

Which was not the case, so…

In those two years, I worked with Paul Dariès, Xavier Ferrero. Unfortunately, both are gone. We started to set up a joint project for the cadets and the pro group, to get the young people used to having the same training as us and to take the best hopes with us. 

We had started to build things with Joan Caudullo, setting up a recruitment unit. Meetings bringing together all the club coaches began to take place. 

It gave the young people a goal: "Finally things are changing at MHR, we can claim the first team if we perform. "And it helped solidify our foundations. I had a lot of fun doing that, without asking anything from the club, just out of passion. Plus, my son was in the middle of it all. So I took all the children around him as my kids. 

All this was put in place to reap the benefits within 4-5 years. I'm quite happy with that. I don't know if it will last, I don't really care.

But it's a regret that I still have today. Before you arrived for the interview, I was still watching their training, their matches. And that, I think, is my second frustration: having abandoned them.

Not having taken the initiative to take the reins of the athlete at a given moment, is that a regret today ?

It's more complex than that. Three years ago, I arrived to help my friend Xavier (Garbajosa, manager from September 2019 to January 2021) as defense coach. The marriage between Xavier's Toulouse identity and the workforce we had available did not work. 

Philippe Saint-André then becomes manager/sports director. Olivier Azam and I become head coach. I was a little in Philippe's shadow but that suited me well. He protected me a lot, gave me comfort. He was the one who managed the management, contract, administration, recruitment… And I only had to take care of the field. It was nice. We managed to maintain ourselves and win the Challenge by completely changing the training methodology and the game plan. We adapted to the players we had. Same the following season, closed by a Brennus. So actually, I never thought I would be number one, number two, number one again.

My mistake was, perhaps, not having communicated more with you (the journalists) to send me flowers because I know how it works. I'm not a very good communicator and I'm not interested.

“We will forever be the first”: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde confides for the first time since his departure from the MHR

Obviously, the methodology was good to win two titles in two years.

The Brennus is the most prestigious for a club. He arrives very quickly in the project. It's a source of pride for me because winning with Toulouse is "normal” and a little easier than elsewhere. So winning in Montpellier after a year and a half of work is a great satisfaction. But the club still suffers from instability. A few weeks after the Shield and having been named best staff of the year, Olivier Azam is released for reasons that I do not know Again. And Philippe said to me: we need to find someone who takes care of the front line. Joan Caudullo is acting in the interim. It was supposed to last 2-3 weeks, it lasted six months. 

And the post-title year is particularly complicated, as if there was a backlash.

It was difficult because we had lost Guilhem Guirado, Benoît Paillaugue and Fulgence Ouedraogo. This was followed by major injuries to Arthur Vincent, Yacouba Camara and Geoffrey Doumayrou, who were supposed to regain control in the locker room. Without forgetting the post-title relaxation, at all levels of the club. We weren't the same. 

At the same time, I'm trying to change the team's profile a little. We are a little less good at winning so we have to create a little more in rugby. Then I am still on my mission to have a chameleon team at the end of my contract in 2025. 

A few extra-sporting elements end up disrupting the club's organizational chart, don't they ?

In the off-season, Philippe and the president fell out a bit following stories in the locker room that occurred at the end of the season. So Philippe takes a lot of perspective but I don't understand the fact that he will no longer be there. Richard (Cockerill) arrives. Given his background, his experience and his temperament, he offers his services to the president to become leader. In a sense, it doesn't bother me, as long as I keep control of the training. Except that I'm losing that too. In seven matches, one victory. We're not good. Nowhere. And we have a lot of injuries.

Have you had the opportunity to bounce back elsewhere ? Have you received any offers ?

Yes, 2-3 small tracks. But now is not the time. I have a somewhat unusual family life, linked to one of my children. For 25 years, my wife took on a lot of the work. It's a bit up to me to take over. If I have a few months ahead of me, I don't want to disperse and help him. And I take a moment to introspect, write a project, learn to communicate, study the arrival of a coach on a staff etc. It's a moment of perspective. I stay near the pitches, I go see the young people, I watch all the matches, I write a lot. And I will wait for the right opportunity. But tomorrow is not the day before. 

You always want to, so ?

Ah yes, yes. Then one day I will have to position myself at the head of a project, and not just manage the field. Philippe gave me the chance to only manage this part in Montpellier, which I prefer, and I didn't take care of the management. Operation was great. Even if, inevitably, you take the laurels a little less. Or on the contrary, external criticism. Philippe had to go to the fire a couple of times in moments of tension. I would have liked it to continue like that. That was not the case. And next time I will know how to be a little more political, naughty. Even if it's not in my mentality. 

"The president has always been very human with me"

Philippe’s withdrawal was fatal to you ?

Operation was good. But it could have been better. We started talking about it with Philippe, who wanted to take a step back by stopping being in the stands with the staff. We wanted to structure the club. This club is young. Toulouse and La Rochelle are 100 years old. This club is 38 years old, twelve of which were spent with the current president. Dozens of coaches passed by. There was no common thread between the foundations, the young people and the first team. With Philippe, we wanted to give certainty to this club, to build. From the back office to the field. Hence the presence of "Fufu" in offices. I was convinced that Benoît Paillaugue should stay at the club (current youth coach), the same for Geoffrey Doumayrou. He stinks of rugby, he's a guy from here. All of that is the most important thing.

And the rest would have followed, by being skilful on recruitment, continuing to clean up the workforce, constrained by the Salary Cap. We had to make up for past mistakes. But all this doesn't happen overnight. Now it doesn't concern me anymore. Even though I put all my heart into it for three years.

I'm not from here but I invested, and I dreamed that Benoît (Paillaugue) would replace me one day. I also had the idea of ​​seating the youth staff at our table. That is to say, create an open space where everyone uses the same language. We had managed to restore the link between the Association and the professional. It was done to find a generation at Ouedraogo-Picamoles-Trinh-Duc. 

Are you still watching the Montpellier matches ?


Do you see an evolution ?

I don't necessarily want to talk about it. This is their story. We will forever be the first. To do what we did with this team, without a training center, without everything that the others have, it's a great success. Two titles in three years is no small feat. That's a personal victory though. I had difficult times like any coach. Whether in Toulouse or with the French team. 

And to win here, after everything that had happened, was crazy. It rewards all the work we had put in, especially since the field depended a lot on me. It feels weird to talk about yourself all the time (smile).

Have you spoken with the current staff ?

No, that's none of my business. They decided to change everything. As far as I'm concerned, I think it's a blessing in disguise.

What do you mean ?

It's good that I'm not here anymore, compared to some people. Now, what I want to say is that I have received a lot of messages from the players and the staff. It warms my heart, even if it doesn't change anything. Jessica Casanova (general manager) was admirable during the breakup. And President Mohed Altrad, while he is often poorly perceived, was very human with me and I thank him for that. 

We will meet again in eight years to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the title. And we will be happy to all see each other again.

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