VIDEO: 'I don't think you can go to France and stay 100 percent South African'
France has become a popular stopover for South African players and it is no longer just the proverbial ‘retirement village’.
Currently, there are hundreds of South Africans plying their trade abroad – with 30-odd playing for French clubs in European and Top 14 competitions.
World Cup-winning Springboks like Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Handré Pollard (Montpellier), and Cobus Reinach (Montpellier) – to name only a few – are currently signed for European and French teams.
While the players often steal the limelight, there are also a number of South African coaches based abroad.
One of those is Alan Basson Zondagh, a skills specialist and backs coach, who moved to European giants Stade Toulousain in 2019.
The four-time European Cup winners will feature in the Champions Cup semifinals next week, when they host Bordeaux-Bègles at Stade Ernest Wallon on May 1 in an all-French affair.
Toulouse also has 20 French Championship (now Top 14) titles to their credit.
Zondagh has totally immersed himself in the French culture since making Toulouse his home.
His journey from an apprentice to his father, at a local academy in the Western Cape, to one of the top clubs in the world, is inspirational.
His first ‘rugby’ experience was when his dad – celebrated coach and rugby aficionado Alan – put an old leather ball in his crib at birth.
In an interview with @rugby365com Zondagh junior said his love for the game has never diminished.
He said his coaching career started by “default” when a surfing accident forced him to retire from playing.
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“Because I wanted to stay involved, I started coaching,” he told this website.
“From then I fell in love with the art of coaching.”
After assisting his dad at an academy on the Cape West Coast, he evolved into a more senior coach – continuously learning and upskilling himself.
After working with the youth teams at the Durban-based Sharks, he progressed to the Currie Cup and Super Rugby teams.
It was there, in 2017, when he met French international Clément Poitrenaud – who spent a season with the Sharks.
“We got on really well and he was a player that I learned a lot from as a coach.”
It was the 47-times capped Frenchman that introduced Zondagh to Toulouse as a skills and backs coach.
He is nearing the end of his second season and admitted it has been a “big adjustment”.
Zondagh admitted the key is to embrace the culture, including learning the language – which took him almost 18 months to get “comfortable” with.
“I am still trying to do lessons every week,” he said, adding: “It is an ongoing project, but something that I am more comfortable with.
“The coaching environment is 100 percent French, so I had to swim or sink.”
He said, unlike the perception that exists about players moving to Europe, for him it is about the journey – learning and growing as a coach.
Furthermore, he has been intrigued by the culture of the French giants.
“They [Toulouse] have a very specific style of playing and their DNA and style haven’t changed over the years.
“They have an ethos about them and the type of player that comes from Toulouse.”
Over the years Zondagh has also spent a considerable amount of time with French and Toulouse legend Pierre Villepreux, a utility back that won 34 caps for Les Bleus between 1967 and 1972. He was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2018.
“Given the time I spent with him, while visiting France previously, once I got offered the job I just had to take it,” Zondagh said.
He spoke about the vast differences between the South African and French cultures, saying anybody considering the move will need to make a massive cultural adjustment.
“I don’t think you can go to France and stay 100 percent South African.
“You have to fit into the way they do things. You have to understand the psyche of the French player.
“That is really important if you want to survive.”
He said the players that do well in France – and there is a long list of South Africans – work at it.
“I don’t think it just comes naturally.
“To use a player like [World Cup-winning Springbok] Cheslin Kolbe as an example. He is naturally an amazing talent and very gifted. However, he is also committed to the club, to the culture, and to making a life in France.
“I’m not saying he will stay there forever, but for now he is committed to being a part of the city and the club. That is something the French want to see. They want to see that you try and speak their language, try and taste their food and interact in a way that they can be proud of.”
He also spoke of the history and culture that drive the French game.
“They are a really proud nation and proud people. They are also very competitive. In Toulouse it is all about winning, but not just about winning – about how you win.
“You have to play good rugby that people want to watch.
“That is one of the reasons I wanted to go over there and experience that rugby, learn the style of rugby and learn how to coach that rugby.”
Zondagh said that for the foreseeable future he will stay in France.
“There are different seasons in your life and your career. For now my career and my season is in France. How long that will be, I am not sure, but I will make the most of it while I am there.”
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