The French rugby union elects a new president on Saturday – and it's a fight to the finish
There have been political elections aplenty in France this month and the ballot box beckons once again on Saturday. This time, however, it’s purely about rugby and the vote to decide who will preside over the FFR (Fédération Française de Rugby) for the next four years. Will it be the incumbent, 71-year-old Pierre Camou, or the anti-establishment upstart, Bernard Laporte, 19 years the junior of his opponent.
It’s been a bitter campaign battle, one that has been waged for the past 15 months, ever since Laporte announced his intention to stand against Camou. The two men detest one another, possessing as they do a vision of the future for French rugby that is diametrically opposed. The warring factions have provided wonderful fodder for the press, who are portraying it as ‘Continuity or Change’, with some of the sport’s best-known personalities taking sides. In the past week alone, two former France captains have come out on opposing sides with Thierry Dusautoir backing Camou and Pascal Pape throwing in his lot behind Laporte.
Declaring that he had a “deep respect” for Camou, Dusautoir said the incumbent president represented both the amateur and professional ranks of French rugby, while Pape believes only Laporte can restore the fortunes of the national side, which since Camou became president in 2008 have declined alarmingly.
With only a few days before France’s 1,889 clubs go to the polls, Laporte, Camou and Alain Doucet, the rank outsider, are tearing round the country trying to sway the undecided. A poll in Monday’s Midi Olympique reported that of the 250 club presidents they had contacted this month (13.2% of the electoral roll), 42.3% intended to vote for Laporte, 23.6% for Camou and 17.9% for Doucet. Given the inaccuracy of one or two pollsters’ predictions this year it would be unwise to believe that Laporte is home and dry, but the feeling within France does seem to be that the sport needs a radical shake-up.
Laporte’s proposals include reforming the way rugby is taught at grass-roots level, the introduction of central contracts for the France squad and putting sponsors’ logos on the national jersey in return for €10m (France are alone of the major nations in not having such a deal in place, with FFR vice-president Bernard Godet ruling out such a move in May out of ‘principle’.).
Camou has long been accused by Laporte of a “lack of transparency” over plans to build and fund a new national stadium. Not only did the former Toulon coach question the costing of the project, he also attacked its construction as a vanity project when the money would be better used transforming the withering grass roots of French rugby.
Camou has managed to avoid any telling blows from Laporte over the stadium but a fortnight ago it was revealed that vice-president Godet was implicated in a fraudulent ticketing scheme for France Tests. He denied any wrongdoing but still resigned.
There have been calls in some quarters for Camou to fall on his sword but the president remains at his post, claiming he knew nothing of the scheme, which was allegedly run by an outside ticketing company.
Mud sticks, however, and the ticketing scandal has reinforced the view propagated by Camou’s opponents that it’s time to drain the swamp. The president has retaliated by saying he’s guilty of nothing more than being traduced by Laporte, who in his view is a skilful manipulator of the media and more interested in himself than the fortunes of French rugby.
Caught in the middle of the campaigning is Guy Noves. It was first rumoured last year that if Laporte beat Camou to the presidency one of his first acts would be to remove Noves as manager of the national team. There’s been no confirmation from Laporte of this story, as there hasn’t from Noves that he’s been secretly “inciting” clubs to vote for Camou. But Monday’s Midi Olympique carried an article headlined Noves still in place for England?.
According to the paper Laporte has sounded out Raphael Ibanez “on the sly” about taking over Les Bleus alongside Fabien Galthie, but those accusations brought a swift response from Laporte. Writing on his Facebook page on Monday afternoon, Laporte accused Camou’s camp “of a last desperate throw of the dice” in repeating the rumour he would fire Noves. “Guy Noves has done a remarkable job at the head of the French team,” stated Laporte. “Without a shadow of a doubt I believe that today he’s the best coach for the national team… rest assured, Noves will stay coach.”
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here.