Laporte: tarnished French rugby supremo who relishes challenges

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

The 58-year-old, however, now faces his greatest challenge as he attempts to stay in his post after he was convicted on corruption charges and given a suspended two-year prison sentence on Tuesday. Laporte said he will appeal.

The court found Laporte had ensured a series of marketing decisions were favorable to close friend and owner of Montpellier rugby club Mohed Altrad in exchange for a 180,000 euro ($191,000) image licensing contract that was never actually carried out.

Altrad was given an 18-month suspended sentence and 50,000 euro fine.

The court banned Laporte from holding any rugby post for two years but this is suspended pending his appeal.

Even so, Laporte stepped down, for the time being at least, from his other high-profile post, as vice-chairman of World Rugby, pending a review by the ethics officer of the sport’s global governing body.

The two posts had put Laporte at the heart of the organization of the 2023 World Cup which he had helped secure for France. The competition kicks off in Paris at the start of September.

Laporte has a reputation as rugby’s ‘Mr Teflon’, but it is possible he will be shoved offstage for what should have been the crowning moment of his later career as a rugby administrator.

He has had a varied and colorful career from sports to business to politics.

In rugby, he was a title-winning scrum-half and then a successful coach, leading France to Six Nations Grand Slams in 2002 and 2004.

A prominent figure in France, he has featured in advertising campaigns from ham to dog food.

In politics, he put up posters for Socialist Francois Mitterrand’s presidential campaigns but later served in the right-wing government under former prime minister Francois Fillon.

Laporte was not a political natural. He lashed out at some of his former colleagues after he was 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.”

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 knew: rugby.

Laporte was named by highly-regarded magazine Rugby World the most influential personality in the sport.

– ‘Thrives on adversity’ –

His abrupt manner and his sometimes colorful language, with a strong southwest France accent, can rub people up the wrong way.

However, his devil-may-care attitude may stem from a brush with death.

After a car crash in 1985 he spent a week in a coma.

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

Ignoring a doctor who told him he would never play rugby again, he showed his bull-headed determination by doing just that. Six years later he lifted the French league crown as captain of Bordeaux-Begles.

Laporte drives people as hard as he drives himself.

As a club coach he benefited from two wealthy owners but he delivered results.

He guided Stade Francais from the third tier to the 1998 French title. Later, he led 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 his cage.”

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

He masterminded France’s shock victory over South Africa for the rights to host the 2023 World Cup.

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

“He thrives on adversity. He builds his personality around that,” said Simon.

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