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Bernard Laporte's country-first changes are set for a...

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Bernard Laporte's country-first changes are set for a backlash from clubs

Overturning a century of club-before-country is a difficult job, but the FFR’s Bernard Laporte has decided he’s the man to do it.

The president of the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) has unveiled plans to introduce central contracts as he seeks to overturn a century of club-before-country in France.

Since his election at the beginning of December 2016, Bernard Laporte has been issuing executive orders faster than Donald Trump on a high-caffeine-and-guarana diet. The long-planned national rugby stadium on the outskirts of Paris has been scrapped. Sponsorship has appeared on the French national kit for the first time, and will add €10million a year to FFR coffers.

But, following the weekend’s Six Nations defeat to Ireland, he intends to speed up his reform programme. The day after the 19-9 loss in Dublin, Laporte said in a statement on the FFR website: “France lost to a better Ireland team, which reinforces to me the ideas of my campaign, which are that we must do work on producing players but, above all, that we must implement the reform of federal contracts.”

He fleshed out his plan to reform a system that was last reformed as recently as summer 2016 during an appearance on the Stade 2 sports magazine show.

“The first thing is to protect the French national team,” he said. “There have been improvements [since the current agreement between the FFR and Ligue National de Rugby was signed in summer 2016] but we realise even the current convention isn’t sufficient.”

The agreement in place allows head coach Guy Novès to name a 30-player ‘elite squad’, and a 20-player ‘development squad’, and have greater control over their game and rest time. He also has more time with them at key points in the calendar: November internationals, the Six Nations, the next World Cup.

Laporte – who won four Six Nations titles including two Grand Slams during an eight-year reign as France’s coach, as well as three European Cup crowns and the Top 14’s Bouclier de Brennus in five years with Toulon – made it clear he wants to go further to give the France coach an even greater say in the management of elite and future players.

He added: “There are two main axes. One is development – there are too many positions where we lack players because our development isn’t ideal. So we will put people on the ground to train the coaches … that’s a long-term project that we’re trying to put in place.

And in the short term, we want to protect the French team.”

Laporte plans to centrally contract 40 players, paid for in part by an extra international every year. But he can expect fierce opposition from French clubs who pay the players’ big-money salaries.

Even before this latest initiative was shoved into the limelight at the weekend, Rene Bouscatel, the president of Toulouse – the club with which Novès won 10 French domestic titles and four European Cups as a coach – described the new FFR president’s plans as ‘surreal’.

But Laporte says he has the players’ backing. “On Monday, we signed contracts with the players, individually, on a new convention, which we will go back over, but which is above all a commitment to say they are in favour of our project and the creation of federal contracts. So that players have a contract with their club and with the federation is the most important.

“For me, if the French team is to be strong, the players have to have more preparation and recovery time than they have right now. The French team has to become our priority once again, like Ireland or Scotland.”

The World Rugby rankings table – not to mention the Six Nations ladder – strongly indicates that Laporte is correct. But French clubs will not see it that way. Monsieur Le President has a battle on his hands.

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Bernard Laporte's country-first changes are set for a backlash from clubs
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