Crunch time for President Laporte ahead of World Cup decision
Le Crunch, a term the French have long used for their encounters with England, evokes violent rugby passions on both sides of the Channel. It would be entirely fitting, too, to describe the showdown this week between Bernard Laporte, president of the French Rugby Federation, and Bill Beaumont, the English president of World Rugby.
Laporte won two Grand Slams as his national team’s head coach, Beaumont one as captain of his country and both won domestic titles as players. The spoils will not go this time, though, to the one who racks up most points in a maelstrom of rucks, grunts and groans.
Rather to the one who captures the most votes at London’s luxury Royal Garden Hotel on Wednesday in a secret ballot to decide whether South Africa, supported by Beaumont, or France will host the 2023 World Cup.
Not forgetting Ireland, who came third behind them both in an official evaluation report to the global governing body that has recommended South Africa ahead of France.
Never before has the country backed by World Rugby failed to go on and secure the prize in the final poll.
On the other hand, their stance has never been so hotly criticised. Especially by Laporte, whose verbal delivery when excited resembles the chatter of machine-gun bullets.
Incoherent, incompetent and negligent are the three words he used to resume his total opposition to the controversial report.
Beaumont, with British phlegm, dismissed his remarks altogether as baseless and mistaken, adding with apparent condescension, that disappointment and strong emotion was entirely understandable.
As early as tomorrow, Laporte will be prowling the thick-pile carpets of the five-star Kensington hotel in search of votes and perhaps sharing a nightcap with participants at its celebrated Bertie’s Bar.
His first target will by Agustin Pichot, the Argentine vice-president of World Rugby and one-time scrumhalf for Bristol and Laporte’s favourite club, Stade Francais.
He has already encountered Aziz Bougja, head of the African Confederation, at the traditional Oscars ceremony organised by French rugby paper Midi Olympique a few nights ago. And that publication echoed his outrage at the official backing for South Africa with a graphic report on the horrific security nightmares faced by that country.
Pictures of vehicles aflame in the streets and rioters in the sights of heavily-armed police accompanied the chilling claim that there are, on average, 52 violent deaths there every day. A shocking statistic that has already led to the cancellation in Durban of the 2022 Commonwealth Games. And one which has South Africans playing in the Top 14 ready to bear witness.
Agen’s Ricky Januarie, for example, says: “When my wife and three children see what is happening in South Africa, they tell me they do not want to go back and neither do I.”
Racing flanker Antonie Claassen reveals: “When I go back to Pretoria, I have to be very vigilant. In my car, I do not always stop at red lights if it is late.”
And winger Cheslin Kolbe, the new Toulouse sensation, says: “It breaks my heart to see all these murders when I am sitting quietly at home watching the news.”
That is not the only argument Laporte will employ in his quest for a majority. He will reject the World Rugby assertion that South Africa are clearly ahead on the provision of stadiums and hotels. And that the fear that doped players could face criminal prosecution under French law is misplaced and sends out a poor message for the sport.
Tact has never been a strong point with Laporte, despite his brief elevation to the ministerial post of Secretary of State for Sport.
The stakes are high for him this week even though he inherited the World Cup bid from the previous regime he defeated a year ago.
For failure would not only deprive him of some of the funds he has promised to the amateur game that backed his presidential campaign, it might also presage a double whammy before the month is out. The results are imminent from a government investigation into claims Laporte abused his position by persuading a League disciplinary commission to reduce sanctions on Montpellier president Mohed Altrad.
Altrad, the Syrian billionnaire, has financed the Federation in general and Laporte in particular with a
“Incoherent, incompetent and negligligent are the three words Laporte used to resume his total opposition to the controversial report”
personal contract the latter was obliged to tear up once it became public.
Laporte’s enduring enthusiasm for business affairs has become a sensitive point with him down the years.
Facing a parliamentary commission in the week, he declared to one close questioner that he would never enter a government ministry.
The probe was over a London company Laporte set up with a powerful TV director and others four years ago. A satirical paper has just revealed its existence which he describes as a social media platform.
Others have admitted it may one day be used to acquire the TV rights to major sporting events, an eventuality that would create a conflict of interest for Laporte.
His only interest in the next few days, though, centres on glad-handing and his undoubted power of persuasion. Beaumont, who personifies the opposition, was once a genial captain in the TV series A Question of Sport. He appears confident he has the answer to the one that concerns him now.
Touching gloves: Bill Beaumont and Bernard Laporte