Think of a player who had four winners medals in his time at Gloucester. He spent two spells at the club, playing a total of 239 matches. A friendly, often witty man off the field, long standing supporters compared his play to Gloucester forwards of old. Need another clue ? Probably not, but he owned a French restaurant in Cheltenham, and he’ll take a keen interest in this weekend’s Challenge Cup encounter at Kingsholm.
Olivier Azam is on his way to Oyonnax in the summer as their new Director of Rugby, having cut his teeth looking after the forwards at Toulon and Lyon.
“I first spoke about coaching to Nigel Melville and I did a bit under Dean Ryan” Olivier told me ahead of the game between the club he served as a player and his future employers.
“I knew I wanted to go into coaching and I have learned from every coach in the way they would do things and why. I would ask myself if I would have made the same decisions. I tried to analyse things from the coaches’ point of view. I did my badges at Gloucester and the opportunity to go to Toulon when I retired was exciting as they had not done well the year before. I was with another young coach (Pierre Mignoni) and we worked hard together. It was a great experience to have Philippe Saint Andre and then Bernard Laporte guiding us.”
Philippe and “Zed” go back a long way. They played at Claremont together before the one brought the other to Kingsholm first time round nearly 15 years ago. His first spell ended in 2003, but he was only back in France with Montferrand for a year before he had two English teams chasing him.
“I had wanted to go back to France to try and get in the French squad for the World Cup” Azam said. “I was not enjoying my rugby though and Philippe was at Sale. He wanted to take me there as a player coach but it was a bit early for me, and Tom Walkinshaw heard about it and picked up the ‘phone. He made sure I came back to Kingsholm and I’m really glad he did because I spent over 10 years as a player in the end at the club and met a lot of good people which was important for me.”
Even now, you feel Azam’s warmth towards the club still burns strongly. He welcomes the fact that Alex Brown, Peter Buxton and Trevor Woodman are still involved, and has been sorry to see a string of former colleagues (Brown, James Forrester, Andy Hazell, Olly Morgan and James Simpson-Daniel) all retire early because of injury.
“They have been unlucky because they were good professionals” Olivier went on. “I really enjoyed being around guys like Andy Hazell because of everything he put his body through on the pitch, and I also knew if we worked hard to give James some good ball he would always do something amazing – things I couldn’t do! I’ve been lucky in my career. I had only two big injuries over 18 seasons and I missed more games because of the scrapes I got into. That was part of my game and I didn’t mind getting stuck into the opposition. I think I have strong genes, so I must thank my parents for that.”
A parent himself, Azam’s son is a keen Gloucester supporter, and with an English wife, any televised matches are essential viewing with Thomas wearing his very own Gloucester shirt. Next season, dad will ensure he’s got an Oyonnax one to go with it.
“Oyonnax reminds me a lot of Gloucester when I first joined the club because of the spirit which is running
through it. This is their second year in the Top 14 and the town lives for the rugby team. They need to keep developing as a squad but they have a lot of pride and they work really hard, that is what they are known for. At the moment I am focused on keeping Lyon in the Top 14 but I am starting to analyse the squad and staff at Oyonnax to make sure we can improve the team next season.”
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