Friday 21 July 2017

Brendan Fanning: Clubbed to death - the madness of French rugby

Bernard Laporte has work cut out trying to reverse ailing Test fortunes of Les Bleus

President of the French Rugby Federation Bernard Laporte Picture: PA
President of the French Rugby Federation Bernard Laporte Picture: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If Super Saturday in March 2015 was the high point of the Six Nations then three years previously, on a freezing February night in Paris, was the other end of the scale. With most of a full attendance already in their seats, the game was called off.

Over the previous half hour there had been a fair bit of scurrying around trying to establish if the freezing pitch could be thawed. A bit late by then lads. It was apposite that the news should be broken to those present, and the world, by a Six Nations employee, Christine Connolly, who had travelled in expectation of the mundane. She ended up centre stage.

In the absence of any of the French hosts having the balls to explain to their guests why the party would not be starting, Ms Connolly made her way to the centre of the pitch and took on the responsibility. The response from the crowd was, as you would expect, unkind. If you were in any way connected with French rugby, it was shameful stuff.

And classically French. A lot of shoulders being shrugged, and a whole heap of buck-passing by officials with a dexterity above and beyond that country's players on Championship match days. France finished the Six Nations in fourth place that season, and that too was appropriate.

Indeed the fiasco over the pitch that night neatly summed up how life had overtaken the Fédération Francaise de Rugby. Stade de France, splendid as it is, doesn't belong to them. Rather, it is owned by a consortium. So the FFR pay through the nose to use the gaff, and fetch up on match day hoping the immersion will be turned on and the jacks will be flushing.

The frozen pitch prompted a ping-pong of who should have done what, and when. FFR president Pierre Camou fired the first rocket that night, and the memory of him at the press conference is still fresh: highly indignant, yet unwilling to take questions. His rage - if not his refusal to engage with the media/public - was understandable, for it was confirmation of the dangers of controlling neither the national stadium nor those who play in it.

In this country when race day dawned in the professional stakes, we were as useful as a hedgehog in the Irish Derby. Picture the stall marked IRFU, and when the gates flew open they were trying to burrow their way out the back.

Frustrating as that was, it didn't diminish the upside: given our awfulness at the amateur code we stood to gain an enormous amount if its replacement could ever be embraced. And, sure enough, the top two tiers in this country have been transformed since the penny dropped in Lansdowne Road.

Our players are controlled mostly by the parent body and play in a stadium where that organisation is joint owner, and has paid off, through 10-year tickets, its portion of debt. The way that parent body runs the game is an ongoing debate, but you can't argue with the foundations.

In France, those basics currently are all over the shop. So on the first issue, the stadium, Pierre Camou embarked on a project to build a whopper venue in Rhis-Orangis, to the south of Paris. It was scheduled to cost €700m. Then Bernard Laporte won the race for president late last year. So long Pierre, so long new stadium.

On the second issue - controlling the players - Laporte is playing catch-up, but chasing hard. He can't achieve the degree of influence that obtains in this country, but he is operating off a huge playing base, and his experience of both sides of the fence is invaluable.

It was Laporte who took France into the Six Nations. Not unlike Eddie O'Sullivan when he got the gig here, Laporte was the right man at the right time. He traded a dollop of French flair for an irresistible dose of power and pragmatism, aided and abetted on defence by Englishman Dave Ellis. If you look at the graphic on this page, you'll see it's been downhill since he moved on.

The world has changed shape fairly dramatically since those days. In this country we fear our provinces getting left behind by the financial power, carried in tv contracts, now wielded by clubs in England and France. In the FFR they lament the degree to which that money muscle has shoved the importance of the national team under the heading of any other business.

For examples of how far the clubs have bolted over the horizon Laporte need look only to the second leg of Munster's Champions Cup tie with Racing 92 last month. In a system where Big Brother had more influence you would imagine a phone call from head office suggesting Racing travel with the Espoirs to what was a dead issue for them.

Instead they brought a decent side to Limerick, and lost Test players Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat and Henry Chavancy to injury. Their motivation in picking a strong side was out of respect for Ronan O'Gara. Seemingly, France coach Guy Noves was fit to be tied.

The clubs pay the wages. They are in a different financial league to the national set-up. Noves can jump up and down all he wants. Meantime in FFR's boardroom Laporte is exercised by the deeper issue of how many France-qualified players actually get a look-in at club level, between all the overseas operators.

Having dropped anchor in Toulon four years after he was done with coaching the France team - the interim was spent usefully as secretary of state for sport, and, less productively, coaching Bayonne and Stade Francais - Laporte has served his time as a poacher. So he has contributed to this crisis. The chief criterion then was getting on board top-quality players who had no interest in international rugby. National service was not on the agenda.

In 2015, Toulon won their third straight Heineken/Champions Cup, and 14 of the 21 players used in the final were not eligible for France. Clermont were their victims that day in Twickenham - 10 of their lot were in the same boat.

When the battle for power in Europe was at its height a few years ago, with ERC and its rugby unions hanging on in a gale, Pierre Camou was hot to trot with a regional solution in France, to regain control of the players and bypass the clubs.

As in England, the time to do that was the mid '90s, when the game had just gone open. In this country the IRFU happened on to the right path courtesy of the provincial system, which had been trundling along for years. It was the most fortuitous stumble in the history of the game.

So France's solution is to try and find some common ground with the clubs. Reducing, by regulation, the clubs' reliance on non-France-qualified players is one thing; bringing some sanity to the playing schedule is another.

With the latter in mind Laporte approached the LNR - the clubs' body - last month with a 50-50 proposal: the FFR would share the wage bill and in return get a half share of the players' time. Given that the clubs are awash with tv money and increasingly driven by owners who see Test rugby not as a measure of players' ability, rather of owners' patience, it remains to be seen how this one pans out.

That Laporte is driving it suggests it is no half-assed plan. He is not the sort of fella who signed up for more of the madness of France. And had he been in situ on that freezing night in Paris at least we would have got some value for money.

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