Bernard Laporte is the most influential person in world rugby. That was the verdict of Rugby World magazine when last month it published its biennial report on the sport’s 50 most influential people. The president of the French rugby federation president, and the World Rugby vice-president, was named rugby’s pre-eminent power-broker in a top 10 dominated by the French. Ben Morrel, the CEO of the Six Nations, was third in the rankings, France captain Antoine Dupont fourth, RWC 2023 chief executive Claude Atcher one place below and in seventh spot was Fabien Galthié, coach of the national team.
Rugby World quoted an unidentified source saying of Laporte: “Bernard gets things done. He’s moody, he’s not a man who’d go for a pint with you, he’s always got somewhere to be, but he’s majorly influential.”
I’ve never had a pint with the man dubbed ‘Crazy Bernie’ during his coaching days, but I did have a coffee with him in early 2016 in a Parisian café. He was engaging, accommodating and full of nervous energy, and he did indeed have a busy schedule on the day of our encounter. Hardly surprising, however, given that at the time he was campaigning to become the FFR president. He told me he wanted the job because French rugby was ‘sick’, and he compared the FFR to a ’dictatorship’. His campaign slogan was ‘The Federation, it’s You’, a message to the presidents of all the 1,885 clubs in France whose vote goes to deciding the presidency.
Among Laporte’s pledges in 2016 was one to end the costly construction of a new national stadium south of Paris, a determination to ‘work with the clubs in developing young talent’ and a promise to bring ‘more transparency to the federation’
Laporte was duly elected in December 2016, ousting the incumbent Pierre Camou in a bitter contest that exposed the deep divisions within the French game.
Six years on and those divisions appear, on the surface at least, to have been healed. Rugby in France is in rude health, epitomised by the national team having won their first Grand Slam this year in 12 years and also sitting, for a short time, at No 1 in the world rankings.
Laporte has delivered on his pledge to scrap the new stadium as well as develop new talent. but has he brought greater transparency to French rugby. More pertinently have the divisions really healed or have they been temporarily stitched together like a gash in a lock forward’s scalp at half-time?
The answer to that question will likely be known next month when Laporte goes on trial charged with various financial offences, including corruption and insider influence, all of which he vigorously denies. Beside him in the dock on lesser charges will be his friend and Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad (who was No 40 in Rugby World’s list) and the FFR vice-president Serge Simon.
The trial will be the culmination of a saga that began in January 2018 when France’s anti-fraud squad – la Brigade de répression de la délinquance économique (BRDE) – launched an investigation into Laporte’s dealings with Altrad. Of particular interest to investigators was the allegation that Laporte put pressure on the FFR appeals committee to reduce a sanction against Montpellier for a breach of the salary cap in the 2016-17 season.
Then there is the matter of the sponsorship of the national team’s shirt, which, allege BRDE, was not a fair and open competition. An initial offer of 9.9m euros per season was made to the FFR in June 2017 by the official partners of GMF, Orange, Société Générale and BMW. But the deal was eventually awarded to Altrad for a sum of 6.8m euros per season.
Everything you read, what you have read and what you will read has already been said in 2017 and 2018. There is nothing new… we hope that this soap opera will end one day.
Mohed Altrad, on the BRDE investigation
In September 2020 Laporte and Altrad spent two days in BRDE custody, and upon their release Laporte derided the BRDE investigation, claiming that their ‘file is empty. There is nothing concrete. Guesswork, interpretations, scenarios.’
But in July 2021 BRDE passed its 76-page report to the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office, and in January this year they announced that Laporte and his co-accused would stand trial in September. The French sports newspaper, L’Équipe, has described the report as ‘damning’ but the accused continue to deny all charges. ‘Everything you read, what you have read and what you will read has already been said in 2017 and 2018,’ said a defiant Altrad in a radio interview earlier this year. ‘There is nothing new… we hope that this soap opera will end one day.’
This is a similar line to Laporte’s who, from the moment of his release from custody, has insinuated that his enemies have engineered a scandal out of nothing. One of Laporte’s confidantes told Le Figaro newspaper: ‘This media blitz is a ploy, a manipulation, ten days before the election for the presidency of the FFR. It is regrettable that the judicial system should be sensationalised in this way. Bernard Laporte is being condemned by the media when there is nothing new. It is a disgrace.’
Whatever the outcome of next month’s trial it is an embarrassing situation that French rugby finds itself in a year out from hosting RWC 2023. One imagines that the New Zealand Rugby Union are also a little uneasy given that the All Blacks‘ shirts (like the French ones) are emblazoned with the name ‘Altrad’.
If one scandal wasn’t bad enough for French rugby, another one broke in June when L’Equipe ran an article claiming that Claude Atcher is presiding over a ‘management of terror’ within his RWC 2023 organisation. The paper alleged that there have been a series of resignations from demoralised staff and those who remained live in fear of the sharp-tongued Atcher.
I am capable of saying to someone’s face that their work is not good…but nowadays, some people can’t accept being told that their work doesn’t meet expectations
Claude Atcher, France’s 2023 CEO, refutes allegations about a culture of fear under his leadership
In response to L’Equipe’s expose, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, the Minister of Sport, ordered an inquiry into the claims. Atcher – who will also appear in the dock next month alongside Laporte, Altrad and Simon – has refuted the allegations. In a recent interview he implied his detractors were ‘snowflake’ Millennials unused to constructive criticism. ‘I admit to an intergenerational gap,’ said. ‘There is perhaps this cultural difference with my paternalistic management. I am capable of saying to someone’s face that their work is not good…but nowadays, some people can’t accept being told that their work doesn’t meet expectations.’
Atcher’s defence was challenged by Florian Grill, who unsuccessfully challenged Laporte for the FFR presidency in 2020. The 56-year-old told a newspaper he had first-hand experience of Atcher’s feisty approach dating back a few years to a meeting of the FFR’s management committee.
‘I dared to ask for an account of the financial relations between Score XV (Claude Atcher’s company) and the FFR,’ explained Grill. ‘While Bernard Laporte replied: “We’ll see about that at a future committee meeting” – which was never the case – Claude Atcher came and stood three centimetres from my nose and said: ‘You’re looking for me, you’ll find me’.”
The FFR presidential election of 2020 was a hostile campaign, and Grill and his team (which included a trio of French legends in Serge Blanco, Fabien Pelous and Jean-Claude Skrela) were critical of how Laporte had run the FFR in his first term.
Laporte won by a narrow margin – 51,47% – and the antagonism engendered during the campaign has not subsided. Last month Grill accused Laporte of a ‘shocking’ mismanagement of the amateur game in France, both structurally and financially. ‘All the money goes to the top level,’ he claimed. ‘There is not one euro for amateur rugby.’ He added that despite the 13.5m euros from CVC, the private equity firm whose £365m investment has bought them a 1/7th share in Six Nations Rugby, the FFR forecast a profit next year of just 1.5m euros. ‘Take away the CVC contribution, the FFR loses 12m euros without putting a single euro more on amateur rugby,’ said Grill.
According to a report in the French press in April, Laporte and Serge Simon will quit the rugby world in 2024 when their tenure at the FFR expires.
According to a report in the French press in April, Laporte and Serge Simon will quit the rugby world in 2024 when their tenure at the FFR expires. The former has no intention of standing for a third term or launching a bid to become the next president of world rugby. Reportedly Laporte, 57, who doesn’t receive a salary as president of the FFR, would like a job that is better paid and less tempestuous. Simon, long regarded as Laporte’s heir apparent, plans to return to his former profession in medicine.
Instead Laporte is said to be ready to back Patrick Buisson, the man in charge at the FFR of amateur rugby. Florian Grill intends to run again and he is said to be confident that he will triumph in 2024.
In the same year Rugby World magazine will publish its next list of the 50 most influential people in rugby. Perhaps Laporte will come out on top again, the president of a federation whose national team won the World Cup for the first time the previous year in a flawlessly hosted tournament.
Or perhaps he won’t feature at all. It depends very much on the outcome of next month’s trial.