Laporte: French rugby supremo who relishes challenges

·3-min read

Bernard Laporte, the president of the French Rugby Federation (FFR), has served as a player, coach and even a minister, overcoming controversy and setbacks to become one of the most powerful figures in the sport.

The 58-year-old faces his latest challenge this time in court, accused of favouritism in awarding the shirt sponsors contract for the national side to close friend and billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier, Mohed Altrad.

Laporte has had a varied and colourful career which has covered all angles from sports to business to politics and now sees him in a role at the heart of preparations for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

On the rugby front he has been a title-winning scrum-half as well as a successful coach both with the national team -- achieving Six Nations Grand Slams in 2002 and 2004 -- and at club level.

A figure whose prominence transcends rugby, he has featured in advertising campaigns from ham to dog food.

In politics he put up posters for Socialist Francois Mitterrand during one of his presidential campaigns and then served as a minister in the right-wing government under former prime minister Francois Fillon, who was later convicted in a fake job scandal.

He was not a political natural and he lashed out at some of his former colleagues once he had been relieved of his duties in 2009.

"They did not consider me part of their world," he told Paris Match in 2009.

"I lacked the polish and the networks, I simply did not exist."

That seemed a strange admission from a man of whom an English observer remarked: "Apart from (Cardinal) Richelieu no one else in France has shown more political sense."

The hard lessons learned from his two years as a minister paid off, for he has worked the corridors of power more effectively in the world he understands, rugby.

Laporte, who is also a vice-chairman of global governing body World Rugby, was named by highly regarded magazine Rugby World the most influential personality in the sport.

- 'Thrives on adversity' -

His brusque, straight-talking manner -- sometimes delivered with colourful language -- in his strong southwest France accent can rub people up the wrong way.

However, his devil-may-care and take-no-prisoners attitude to life may be down to when he had a brush with death.

He was in a coma for a week as a result of injuries he suffered in a car crash in 1985.

"It is the most important moment in my life," he said.

Ignoring the doctor who told him he would never play rugby again, he showed his bull-headed determination in doing so and six years later as captain lifted the French league crown with Bordeaux-Begles.

Laporte drives people as hard as he drives himself -- though as a club coach he did benefit from two wealthy owners.

However, he would point to results as he guided Stade Francais from the third tier to being crowned French champions in 1998 and Toulon to three successive European Cup triumphs as well as the 2014 national title.

"Bernard will never let things go and will always say what he thinks and without sugar coating it either," said former Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

"He is not someone one can buy off or coax over to one's side.

"He is not a bird one can shut in its cage."

This plain speaking allied to a ruthless streak has also produced results as federation president.

He notably masterminded a shock victory for France in winning the right to host the 2023 World Cup, when South Africa were regarded as overwhelming favourites.

However, according to federation vice president Serge Simon, one of his oldest friends dating back to the Bordeaux title-winning side days, overcoming the odds is Laporte's forte.

"He thrives on adversity. He builds his personality round that," said Simon.

mca/sdu/jr/pi/sjw/imm