HE left these shores in the summer of 2018 – but Régis Sonnes still considers himself a West Cork man.
In fact, he made that very point quite early during our recent phone call when the talk turned to the explosion of rugby in West Cork and the growing success of local players, including Jack Crowley who Sonnes coached.
’I am very happy because I am a West Cork man,’ he says.
Bandon and West Cork remain close to the French man’s heart. When he moved his family here in 2016 he was looking for an adventure and a new experience. West Cork duly delivered.
He came for work, as a full-time coach with Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar School, but no-one expected him to have the influence that he did during his two years in West Cork. Still, on and off the field, his impact is being felt. It’s the small things, too, as Bandon rugby player Tom Ferguson explains.
‘He brought in this idea where one player would have to make dinner for the rest of the players after training on a Friday night. Usually fellas, after a week at work, would get into their car and go home, but Régis is big into the community. The idea was to keep us together and build that connection,’ Ferguson says.
Sonnes will be pleased to learn that tradition has been maintained since he left. Not after every Friday training, but the junior team has stuck to it as best they could.
It’s on the field where Sonnes’ impact can really be measured. He arrived in Bandon with a strong rugby CV and his stock has risen even further since he left in 2018 and helped Toulouse win the Top 14 in 2019. Now he is the current manager of Agen in the Top 14. In his playing days the Mont-de-Marsan native lined out for Toulouse (winning Top 14 titles in 1994 and 1995), Brive and Agen, before stepping into the coaching world with Agen, the Spanish men’s national team and Bordeaux. Then came the opportunity to relocate to Bandon and oversee the development of rugby both in Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar School.
Conor Slattery, Bandon RFC’s Director of Rugby, was the man with the contacts and who set off a chain of events that led to Sonnes swapping the professional game for the world of amateur rugby.
‘Regis brought that professional approach to Bandon and he gave us a lot of belief,’ explains Tom Ferguson, who was captain of the junior team under Sonnes.
‘There are coaches who might only think this is junior rugby and you can only do so much, but he didn’t see it like that. He would tell us to do something, we would say we didn’t know whether we could do that, and he would ask why not. His reply to everything was “why not?”
‘Whether it was junior rugby or professional rugby, that his was attitude, and that gave us a lot of belief.’
Together, Sonnes and Bandon rugby scaled new heights. On the club front Bandon won the 2017/18 Munster Junior League Division 1 title for the first time since 1992/93. They just missed out on promotion to senior rugby in May 2018. The season before Bandon won the Munster Junior Cup for the first time in the club’s history – and Tom Ferguson traces that unforgettable triumph against Young Munster at Thomond Park right back to their French leader.
‘Regis was the difference between us winning and losing that game. We had got to the semi-final the season before but I don’t think we would have got over the line without him. He gave us the belief that we would win, that we could go up against a senior team and beat them, and we did,’ Ferguson says.
Sonnes also guided Bandon Grammar School to the Munster Schools’ Senior Cup semi-final for the first-time ever in 2017 – and on that team was Innishannon’s Jack Crowley. These days, Crowley is in the Munster Rugby Academy, made his senior debut in the PRO14 in January, is tipped as a future Munster and Ireland outhalf and recently turned down a move to the Ronan O’Gara-coached La Rochelle in the Top 14.
‘Jack is a very good player,’ Sonnes says.
‘He was a special guy in the school, he was the captain and he was very important to how we played.
‘The best part about Jack is his mentality, he is very strong in his mind, he knows what he wants and he is developing very well. The process in Munster and Ireland is very good, and he can get his chance there.’
It’s not only the teams and players in Bandon that improved under Sonnes’ guidance, but so did he as a coach. His learnings in West Cork can be applied in the professional game.
‘I improved, for sure,’ he says.
‘When I coach in a professional environment you have all day and every week to coach players and tell them what you want to do, but in Bandon we had two training sessions to try and improve the team. It means that the organisation and the process were very important, I had to be precise and sharp to tell the players what I wanted them to do and what to prioritise.
‘If you can improve a team with two training sessions every week, you can use that experience to improve teams in the professional game, even though it’s a very different culture.’
Sonnes got his message across with Bandon’s players when he arrived ahead of the 2016/17season. He improved the teams he worked with, especially Bandon RFC’s juniors. He encouraged his teams to play ‘positive rugby’, an open and expansive style that led to success.
‘In the first few games after Regis came in he wouldn’t let us kick the ball at all. In junior rugby kicking would be a big part of the game, but he cut it out completely,’ Tom Ferguson recalls.
‘Gradually, he brought kicking into our game, telling us that in this situation you are allowed kick it, and it made everyone think. If we got a penalty, he would make people think – when to kick for touch, when to take a scrum, when to kick for the posts.
‘He made you think about what you are actually doing rather than doing things because that’s the way they were always done.’
That fresh approach reaped rich rewards on and off the field for Bandon rugby and for Sonnes himself. It’s why he can’t wait to return to West Cork, and possibly bring Agen to Bandon on a pre-season training camp. That would allow him meet up with old friends, maybe head to Inchydoney to surf, and to immerse himself again in the culture he embraced for two years.
‘The life we had in West Cork was very good because we had a good time, no pressure and no stress. The people were very, very good to me and this is important for me, and it’s why I am still a West Cork man.’
The feeling is mutual in Bandon as his legacy is far-reaching.