Everything happened very quickly for Gaëlle Mignot. When the emblematic hooker and captain of the French women's team from 2010-18 decided to end her playing career in the summer of 2021 after 70 matches, she immediately switched her focus.
She was offered the opportunity to help coach the senior men's team at her club, Montpellier, while at the same time preparing for a management diploma, which she obtained in June 2022.
This switch to the world of coaching was in line with the Fédération Française de Rugby's ambition to help her progress and this is how she found herself involved in the unique opportunity offered by World Rugby, to join the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
Created as part of the 2017-25 Women in Rugby strategic plan, the programme was designed to support World Rugby in its aim to develop inspirational female leaders and hit its ambitious minimum target of 40 per cent of all coaches at RWC 2025 being women.
A highly beneficial training programme that allowed the former French international to share her knowledge with leading figures in women's rugby via videoconferencing, "to have a real exchange of culture and work that allows a real opening of the mind".
During the Women's Six Nations 2022, she was initially involved in a few workshops and worked with the staff. But a few weeks before RWC 2021, a change of coach with the arrival of Thomas Darracq gave Mignot a new role as assistant coach in charge of contact and scrum.
David Ortiz arrived at the same time and was put in charge of coaching the lineout and defence for Les Bleues. He was previously the forwards coach for his club Agen, having worked with the French age-grade national teams, and like Mignot is now encouraged to take on a major challenge.
"My dream is, above all, to coach, to coach at the highest level possible," Mignot told World Rugby. "I started with the boys and it was already a great challenge for me.
"I was the first woman to coach men; I coached the Montpellier forwards, so the Top 14. And then everything happened very quickly. I never told myself that the priority objective was to coach the national team. But, of course, when you are a competitor, when it happens to you, it's natural to say yes."
"Women's rugby needs women coaches"— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) January 24, 2023
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However, at the end of Rugby World Cup 2021 and the sudden resignation of Thomas Darracq, she was offered the position of co-coach with Ortiz.
"In the end, the training period was, in a way, short because I quickly got back to the heart of the job. Today I am lucky enough to have this opportunity to work with David, to set up a new project and then to throw myself into the adventure," she smiles.
"In addition to the World Rugby course, what really gave me confidence was my club, Montpellier, who allowed me to coach men, which gave me the opportunity to get my feet on solid ground.
"And it's true that my confidence is growing day by day. Today, I think that when the federation offers you a position like that, it shows a certain confidence. I think I have a great challenge ahead of me. But above all I want to show them that they were not wrong and that I can bring everything that is needed to the French team."
LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER AND WORKING WITH EVERYONE
Mignot-Ortiz, this pairing, who had not worked together prior to RWC 2021 in New Zealand, got to know each other, quickly found a balance and are now the guardians of the French project.
"We really do have the same values and things are going very well. On the management of the team, we are really 50-50," insists Mignot. "Afterwards, on the purely sporting part, David will be responsible for the defence and the lineout.
"I will be responsible for the attitudes in contact with the scrum. So we will keep our prerogatives that we had at the World Cup. And I've added the attacking sector. We are the guardians of the project.
"The fact that there are two of us allows us to temper our decisions, to consider them carefully, to build them up. It's really the opinion of both that is taken into account. Sometimes we may not agree on a subject, but each of us defends its arguments, we put forward the pros and cons and we manage to find a consensus which makes us think that this is the best possible solution for the team.
"It's true that it's not common to have a pair at the head of a project. But today, I think we are quite happy with it for the moment."
The experience of Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand, where France finished with the bronze medal, was important in the continuation of the events and in the way Mignot considers the new sporting project.
According to her, it is out of the question not to mobilise the entire women's department. It is obvious that all the stakeholders should work together.
"Today, the academies work very well. Young people are getting ready earlier and earlier. So, it is important for both of us to rely on these people. For example, New Zealand called on its girls from the sevens for the World Cup. So, it's important that we all work hand in hand," she insists.
"We have set up a weekly meeting every Wednesday where we share information on the players, on the tournaments, and also on how we live things. As for the sevens, they have very short tournaments, but very often. We live together longer. So, we take the experience of everyone and we build on that.
"We also worked with the French men's team. Recently, we were in immersion with them, which allowed us to see how they work because they are at the end of a project with the Rugby World Cup coming up.
"We are at the beginning of ours. So, with David, we like to take a little bit of each and everyone and work with them. Today, we are aware that it is not David and Gaëlle who will be world champions, but the Fédération Française de Rugby and all the people who make it up. So, it's important that we work with them.”
AHEAD OF RWC 2025
It is not because there is little time to spare that one should rush through the stages, and the new duo knows this very well.
If Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand had been played in 2021 as it was supposed to be, the situation would have been different. A new cycle would have followed until the next edition four years later.
But COVID-19 shifted everything, RWC 2021 was played at the end of 2022 and the next one is now just over two years away, in 2025. "Yes, that's extremely short," smiles Mignot.
"We're on the eve of the Six Nations tournament, so we're already in it. We will have two Six Nations and two autumn tours before the World Cup.
"I think that, yes, it's going to go at a pace that we can't even control. The World Cup is literally tomorrow, so we have to get into the project, and we have to go for it.
"We don't have much time for experimenting. Even if this tournament will allow us to lay the foundations, we must get down to business. So, we are redoubling our efforts right now."
A first training camp was organised in February in Capbreton and a second one just before the beginning of the tournament. Two important meetings to review the squad, to see where the girls are now, who will play together for the first time since the Rugby World Cup 2021 bronze final victory over Canada.
"We feel that the girls are eager to move forward again. I don't think everyone was satisfied with the outcome of the World Cup with this third place, even if, in the end, we didn't finish far behind because it was a close call in the semi-final. Despite everything, we didn't get through.
"But I think that everyone has absorbed the disappointment a little bit, that everyone wants to start something new. It's a new project, it's a new identity that will be created, new players are coming in and that makes you want to play.
"It gives a little bit of excitement and a little bit of enthusiasm that everyone wants to share.”
DETERMINED TO BOUNCE BACK
In this context, Mignot may appear to be the best possible person to get back up and move on.
The emblematic hooker with 70 caps, who made her test debut against Scotland at RWC 2010, was twice nominated for the World Rugby Women's 15s Player of the Year, in 2015 and 2016.
She experienced three Rugby World Cups as a player, plus a fourth as an assistant coach... and suffered four semi-final defeats.
"I know what they have been through and today, for me, the Six Nations is the moment to move forward and to use what happened at this Rugby World Cup as an experience – because it obviously makes you grow – and to say to ourselves that we will continue to grow, to continue to progress. I hope that the girls will find a lot of pleasure and smiles on the pitch.”
With three matches away and two at home (Nantes on 16 April against Scotland, then at the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble on 23 April against Wales), France will want to make their mark after finishing second behind England in 2022.
"One of the big challenges will be our first match in Italy (on 26 March) against the Italians, who we met in the quarter-finals (France won 39-3)," she said.
"We know very well that it won't be the same match at all because when we met them in the quarter-finals, they had already played a big tournament. We had a bit more experience and we got over that.
"But now it's going to be a straight game, at their place. We are very wary of this team, which is really a force to be reckoned with in this Six Nations.”