The Federation Francaise de Rugby headed by Bernard Laporte this week announced an increase in the number of registered players at the start of the season compared to the same time last year. Though the news is apparently good for the game in France, the registration period is far from over. So, the unusual timing of the announcement is notable and it’s not because of coronavirus.

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The news that the number of registered players in France was more than 8,800 higher than early October 2019 when, traditionally, only two-thirds of player registrations are complete, broke as voting started in the FFR presidential election.

Outside rugby in France, the fact Laporte was up for re-election had pretty much sailed under a radar overwhelmed by Covid-19. At least, it had until last week, when Monsieur le President – along with Mohed Altrad, FFR vice-president Serge Simon, World Cup 2023 head was Claude Atcher, and the FFR’s international relations chief Nicolas Hourquet – were arrested in connection with a three-year-old police investigation into a conflict of interest scandal.

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There’s never a good time to spend 35 hours in police custody before being released without charge. But the timing, ten days before the election, could not have been worse for Laporte. He came out swinging, suggesting the arrests were part of a conspiracy timed to affect his election chances.

Opponent Florian Grill has pretty much refused to comment on the arrests, although he did scoff at Laporte’s conspiracy theory. He even gave an interview while Laporte was in custody in order to refuse to comment, and – in 2016 US election parlance – ‘go high when they go low’.

But who is the man who would be president? Outside French rugby circles, the 54-year-old is relatively unknown. He is the founder, president and CEO of marketing and media consulting agency CoSpirit MediaTrack. He owns a wine estate near Montpellier – and has been chairman of the Île-de-France Regional Rugby League since 2017 following the first electronic voting procedure in French rugby history.

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A similar electronic voting process is in use for the FFR presidential election. The result should be known early on Saturday afternoon. Grill was a friend of former FFR president Pierre Camou and was an active supporter of his campaign when he was ousted in 2016 by Laporte. Camou died in August 2018, having been a key member of France’s successful bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

He announced his candidacy for French rugby’s top job in June 2019 and formally launched his campaign in January with the backing of a formidable list of supporters, including Serge Blanco, Eric Champ, Abdelatif Benazzi, Thomas Castaignede, Jean-Marc Lhermet – who would become vice-president of the FFR if Grill wins on Saturday, former head of the French referees Didier Mené, Fabien Pelous, Julien Pierre and Jean-Claude Skrela.

It’s no surprise to see Guy Noves is a supporter, given the history between himself and Laporte. So is another France coach, Marc Lievremont. Grill wants to warm-up generally frosty relations between the FFR and LNR, which runs the professional game in France, so he probably also has the tacit support of outgoing LNR president Paul Goze, whose second and final term is almost over.

He also plans to allocate €2million per year over four years to clubs that commit to developing rugby in primary schools as part of a project known as the 1,000 School Ambassadors and raise awareness of rugby’s safety projects in schools; is seeking to modernise rugby’s image in France to attract young people back to the game; and wants to create a series of more localised ‘rugby territories’ in conjunction with France’s amateur leagues.

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For most of his campaigning, Grill has been – according to periodic polls in the sports pages – well behind Laporte in the race. But following Laporte’s arrest-and-release, polls have been much closer. One, in Le Figaro, showed Grill marginally ahead and attracted the ire of the current president, who claimed the survey was flawed.

Laporte originally won the presidency by courting amateur clubs and repeated the trick with smaller nations when guiding France’s winning World Cup bid. He’s playing the same tune again, seeking to cement his place at the head of the FFR table by appealing to those outside the upper echelons of the game.

He has promised to spend some of the estimated €13m a year that the FFR would receive from the much publicised but as-yet unconfirmed Six Nations deal with CVC to cover all the costs of referees in the amateur game, saving clubs several thousand euros a year.

He wants to use the push to the 2023 World Cup to attract another 100,000 players to the game in France, in part by using the rejuvenated international side as a shop window. And he has said he would remove a layer of administration by creating direct financial and advisory links between the FFR and clubs. Currently, FFR funds are paid to the leagues in France, which then distribute money to the clubs.

He, too, has a long list of supporters. Simon, his VP, Atcher and Altrad head a list that includes Stade Francais’ Thomas Lombard; former Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal; Stade Francais’ legendary owner Max Guazzini; ex-France internationals Guilhem Guirado, Pascal Pape, and Serge Betsen; Top 14 club presidents Didier Lacroix and Jeff Fonteneau. Current France coach Fabien Galthie, who recently described his rugby career as ‘inextricably linked’ with Laporte and questioned his own future if Grill was elected, is also in the current president’s camp.

But there’s no doubting his campaign, which saw him host 28 meetings in little more than a month from mid-August, was derailed by what happened less than a fortnight ago in Paris. Who will be the next president of the FFR? We should find out sometime on Saturday.

 

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