The Runner Sports

The Trials Of French Rugby President Bernard Laporte

While USA Rugby debates and tries and fails — and, to its credit, tries again — to make rugby professional, and Australian rugby very publicly goes about the difficult job of axing one of its Super Rugby franchises in the worst manner possible, French rugby has been quietly brewing an internecine political row of its own.

Yes, another one.

This one involves no less a luminary than the president of the French Rugby Union, former national coach, and ex-minister of sport, Bernard Laporte. He is under investigation for an alleged conflict of interest after it was alleged he influenced the independent and influential FFR appeals board, which deals with disciplinary issues involving players and clubs.

Six members of the board resigned this week after it emerged Laporte had contacted its chairman in June to offer his ‘political perspective’ on a €70,000 fine and one-match stadium ban it was about to approve against Montpellier for allowing fans to display banners in the Altrad Stadium protesting against the abortive merger between Racing 92 and Stade Francais last April.

It turns out that a company Laporte owns, BL Communications, had previously signed a lucrative consultancy deal with the Altrad Group, run by billionaire businessman and owner Montpellier, Mohed Altrad. The FFR president has this week walked away from that deal.

According to Laporte, he only intervened to avoid further conflict between the FFR and the LNR, which runs professional leagues the Top 14 and ProD2, after simmering hostilities between the organisations exploded in the fallout of the failed merger of the two Paris clubs — and ended in France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat.

Make no mistake, Laporte’s election in December 2016 was controversial — a seismic shift in the very conservative world of French rugby.

During a bitterly fought election campaign, Laporte stood alone as the anti-establishment candidate. The change man. French rugby’s elite basher-in-chief. Eight months later, he is the commander in chief of the game — and the old order is, he claims, fighting back.

In a combative interview with Le Parisien newspaper, he said that the allegations were intended to slow his ‘ambitious’ reforms of the game in France, which he said would ‘benefit amateur rugby and the national side’.

There’s no doubt that French rugby needs change. It has needed it for years. It needed it in December. It needs it now. Laporte was that change man. He appealed to the amateur clubs, and he has taken power away from the monied professional end of the French rugby spectrum. Many do not like it. Whether the reformer can survive this scandal with his influence in tact remains to be seen.

His main opponent for the presidency was the post’s then-establishment incumbent, 71-year-old Pierre Camou, who was elected in 2008 and had — like the Roman emperor Nero — done little more than fiddle in the years that followed while the Top 14 blazed with new money and the French national side declined and fell.

Almost immediately after Laporte took over, plans for a €600 million national rugby stadium — ‘a vanity project’, he said — on the outskirts of Paris were binned and the money refocused on the grassroots game. By the time the 2017 Six Nations ended, France had finally joined the realms of tier one rugby nations to have its shirts sponsored (the first sponsor? The Altrad Group); and an ‘elite squad system’ of 45 players has been set up to help promote the fortunes of the national team.

Sounds impressive. But it has not all been plain sailing. The LNR opposed the elite squad system. It opposes his plans to cut the Top 14 to a Top 12. And Laporte and LNR chairman Paul Goze do not get along — to the extent that conversations between them have had to take place through an intermediary.

Then there was the failed merger and its toxic fallout. Now, there’s this. Laporte, who rode a wave of populism to get the job he has long wanted, looks increasingly damaged.

So far, Laporte has shown himself to be an adept politician. He’ll need to be if he is to survive this.

James Harrington
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James Harrington

Cheese-eating, wine-drinking, France-living freelance sports journalist. Doting husband of one. Sickeningly proud father of three
James Harrington
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