Tuesday 16 January 2018

Nightmare turn of events leaves Stade in the merde

A bizarre soap opera at Stade Francais is no barrel of laughs for Michael Cheika, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Bobby Ewing famously reappeared in a shower scene in Dallas -- a series or two after being killed off -- the intervening episodes being a very long dream sequence imagined by his wife Pam Ewing. For those of you who did not even blink at this concept, well this one is for you.

Nothing, we should know at this stage, ever stays the same in rugby. When Max Guazzini, owner of Stade Francais, sold his majority shareholding in NRG, the French media conglomerate, we assumed that rugby in France would change again. It did. Guazzini, with the consideration he received from the sale, would have no financial worries for the rest of his life. Would that though include the ability to drip-feed his passion for the loss-making Stade Francais?

Guazzini is rich but not rich or charitable enough to dip into his own personal reserves to the tune of €6-10million every year. This year, Stade's deficit was an unbridgeable €12.5million. Maxy could not afford to cover that anymore, he needed somebody with really deep pockets -- somebody like his cross-town rival Jackie Lorenzetti, who had bought Racing Metro 92 and is still a property billionaire in these tough times with the cash to subvent any losses at the club. It is worth considering that every club in the Top 14 -- except Clermont and Toulouse -- is haemorrhaging money, some including Stade at an alarming rate.

Guazzini sought advice and help from former Stade and French coach Bernie Laporte -- Bernie Madoff might have been a better choice. Laporte, despite some success, failed abjectly to maximise the potential of the national side and like his successor Marc Lievremont engaged in some unbelievably erratic behaviour when it came to tactics, selection, game plan and consistency of approach.

Laporte left his post in 2007 after failing to beat an appallingly one-dimensional England team at the semi-final stage of the Rugby World Cup in their own back yard. Laporte was appointed Minister for Sport by Nicolas Sarkozy in his cabinet shortly afterwards. Nobody can say with certainty why he was sacked in 2009 -- let's just say it was an ill-advised appointment and Bernie didn't measure up to the job.

The following year, Laporte tried to take control of Bayonne -- a mid-table club that knew its place and its limitations. Alain Affelou, the owner of a huge chain of optometrists, promised a huge injection of cash and a slush fund to go out and buy star players. Laporte, though, tried to change the structure and systems in place in the club. This led to arguments and a power struggle -- Laporte was ejected and Affelou jumped as well, but was brought back on board. Bernie, out on the street again, teamed up with Guazzini when the cash crisis within Stade crystallised.

Stade were now the nouveau pauvre -- something which did not suit the image of the club. Bernie was to find a saviour; he pulled out all the stops and came up with a private charitable foundation FACEM -- Fondation pour l'Amelioration des Conditions de l'Enfance dans le Monde (the foundation to improve conditions of children in the world). This organisation had allegedly raised money for school and housing projects in Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, so naturally it was a perfect fit to engineer a €12.5m buy-out of a struggling French rugby club of overpaid pampered rugby players whose dandy of an owner was running out of cash.

The principal in the foundation was a Haitian-born Seventh Day Adventist Minister, Job Ariste. Mr Ariste operated out of a near-empty small office with no receptionist or signage which sported a For Rent sign outside in a rough part of town. Laporte had allegedly lodged €170,000 as his stake in SAS Rugby developments, a company set up with FACEM officers and Laporte as their director. Mr Ariste claimed that the cash injection would save Stade Francais. After a dozen years or so of losing money they would miraculously turn it around into profitability -- those profits would "benefit FACEM's projects." A perfect fit, the synergies were blindingly obvious and the €12m would be lodged immediately.

It was important as the LNR (League National du Rugby) were hammering on Stade's door with their financial watchdog arm -- the DNACG. If the books didn't balance, Stade would not only be relegated but they would find themselves in Federale 1, the third tier of French rugby and they would lose their professional status. Pro Div 2, which is the second division, would be by-passed.

When you consider the stakes with about 60 or 70 jobs on the line and the fact that it had been left to the eleventh hour, surely somebody would have done searches to check the bona fides of the organisation that was going to hand over €12m. I know that when Mr Obongo from Nigeria sends me a fax from Lagos asking me to let him deposit €10m in my account for three weeks and leave €1m as a gratuity after they have bought vital machinery for the state, I do like an explanation or clarification before I hand over all of my bank details.

It's comical to think of Guazzini and Laporte gathered round the committee room in Stade Francais waiting for their bank to tell them that the money had arrived. Laporte, it must be remembered, was a Minister and a coach of the French national side. Bernie is now attempting to sue to recover his equity stake -- bon chance, Bernie.

Chantal Juanno, the current Minister for Sport, was asked to intercede but while sympathetic she had to refuse. Bertrand Delanoe, the Mayor of Paris and long-time friend and collaborator with Guazzini on planning, political and event matters, also expressed support but was unable to manoeuvre this time. No state aid for private enterprise.

Richard Pool-Jones, an Englishman and a very decent wing-forward for Stade in their glory years, came out of left-field and brought Thomas Savare, chief executive of Oberthur Technologies, a sim card manufacturer, to the table. The Savare family are number 46 in the French wealth table, €12m would be small change. The club was saved at the death. All new contracts would be honoured including that of our old friend Byron Kelleher, the clearest case of the rat swimming towards the sinking ship that I've seen.

A significant number of senior players were let go by Stade including James Haskell, Hugo Southwell, Mauro Bergomasco, Juan Leguizaman, Ollie Phillips and many others.

Another old friend Mathieu Bastareaud, who allegedly attempted suicide off Pont Neuf after his false claim of a race-related assault was exposed in New Zealand, stated that he wanted to leave Stade, even though it was Guazzini who helped and rehabilitated him during his three- or four-month hiatus after the New Zealand incident.

Laporte made it known that he would prefer that Bastareaud would not get any game time for the two years of his contract that were left rather than let him go to Toulon. If they want to treat the player like that, well that's their business. But why was Bernard Laporte making these statements? Where was former Leinster coach and directeur sportif at Stade Francais Michael Cheika? Laporte has been parachuted in above Cheika and his position has been seriously compromised by having to report to Laporte. This was not part of the agreement when Cheika left Leinster. That situation will not continue for much longer.

You would also question the decision of Paul Warwick and Stanley Wright to up sticks and head straight into this can of wee-wee. Felipe Contepomi too might have enjoyed his time in Leinster and admired Cheika's no-nonsense approach, but all assurances are waived because Cheika no longer has control. This story will undoubtedly have another chapter -- it's fantastic stuff.

The real winners? The IRFU. Cheika had been sniffing around quite a few of his former protégés and a number of the younger squad players. All the IRFU provincial directors have to do is allude to this little story when their players say that they have an offer for a French club. Do their players who might be thinking of moving want to play for a financially sound, beneficial autocracy who eventually have the player's interests at heart or do they want to work for JR Ewing?

PS: I see the Auckland Blues were very quick out of the blocks and have signed Ma'a Nonu on a two-year contract. Munster's quest for a quality midfielder continues.

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