Mad Bernie

French coach Bernard Laporte is one of the game’s great characters. SA Rugby magazine profiled him in their last issue.

From the very beginning, he has been known to everyone in the world of French rugby as ‘Bernie le Dingue’ (‘Mad Bernie’). In the early 1990s, he was regarded as a very ordinary scrumhalf at Bègles-Bordeaux, but also a great captain of one the wildest bunch of players in the history of French rugby.

Between 1995 and 1999, he cut his teeth as a coach at Stade Français, the emerging giants of the domestic club scene, a job that provided him with the perfect opportunity to give full vent to his volcanic temper. They say that you can still hear the echoes of his legendary tantrums reverberating around the walls of the Stade change rooms. Back then, he was no more than a legend in his own half-time, but this young man from a very modest social background in the southwest of France has since become a class A celebrity in French public life.

He is Bernard Laporte, coach of ‘Les Bleus’ and the most colourful and controversial character in French rugby since Jacques Fouroux, his predecessor in the post from 1981 to 1990 and spiritual father.

Laporte’s outbursts have often taken him well over the line of what is acceptable for a man in such a high-profile position. In a radio interview in February 2005, he called Pierre Villepreux, the former French fullback and national director of rugby, ‘a very sad twat. In fact, the biggest twat in French rugby,’ because Villepreux had dared to criticise France’s less-than-impressive start to their Six Nations campaign.

This winter, during the press conference that followed the France-Ireland game, Laporte lost it again, this time scatter-gunning his vitriol at roughly 80 000 people who had the temerity to whistle and jeer his team. France won the match 43-31 but only just managed to survive a ferocious Irish comeback in the second half. Many French fans booed his golden boy Frédéric Michalak, who had not enjoyed one of his best days. When the press later posed questions about the poor performance of his flyhalf, Laporte blew his top, calling the hecklers ‘bourgeois shits’ and suggested they should step out onto the field themselves to see if they could fare any better.

Laporte received no more than a slap on the wrist from Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French Rugby Union (FFR), and he issued a public apology. Behind the scenes and off the record, however, the volcano was still smoking. His rant at the crowd was more than just an eruption of temper; it was an impassioned, sincere defence of his player. The episode perfectly summed up Laporte the human being: direct, raw, unpretentious, honest, generous and passionate.

A man riddled with contradictions, Laporte has recently become something of a player in French society. I met him once for lunch at a fashionable brasserie in the XVI arrondissement of Paris, not very far from his new flat. It is an expensive, beautiful area close to the Bois de Boulogne and full of the very ‘bourgeois shits’ he was to lambaste not long afterwards. It is certainly not the kind of place you can afford to live on a monthly income of 10 000 euros, which is what the FFR pay him.

For Laporte, being coach of le Bleus has, in many ways, been a way of expanding his wallet through all the influential contacts he has made. It has, if you like, been his way of escaping from his poor roots. ‘When she was young, my mother left her village in l’Aveyron, she used to work in a restaurant like this as a waitress before returning home,’ he explains.

Even before his appointment as France coach just after the 1999 World Cup, Laporte had already started to amass his fortune. He had made huge profits in the early 1990s by selling his shares in a casino near the seaside resort of Arcachon and has since opened a number of bars, restaurants, campsites and other businesses all over France.

His earlier commercial activities brought him into contact with some shady ‘faces’ in the Côte d’Azur underworld, but today he is chums with a few heavyweights of the French stock market and is on first-name terms with Nicolas Sarkozy, the young and ambitious conservative leader and home office minister, as well as Bertrand Delanoe, the socialist mayor of Paris. He is all over French public life like a rash, doing TV adverts for razors, pasta, ham, wine, and delivering motivation speeches to senior executives.

It’s incredible that he finds the time and energy, among his multifarious activities outside rugby, to remain so passionate and committed to the job and the game
as a whole.

During our meeting he grabs my little notebook and frantically starts to scribble all kinds of crosses, numbers and arrows to explain tactics and strategy. When he’s trying to convince someone that he is right, Laporte’s tongue fires off like a machine gun, and he fiddles nervously with the frames of his small round glasses.

Some of the (unrepeatable) remarks he makes about his players, in his strong southwest accent, are hilarious. He can be a very funny character when the mood takes him. He is a natural master of communication and, most of the time at least, he is charming to the media because he knows that he has still to completely win them over.

After France’s Six Nations campaign got off to a disastrous start with a shocking defeat in Scotland, many famous former players criticised him, scorning the predictability of his game plans, the inadequacy of his man management, and openly questioning his ability to repeat in 2007 what Aimé Jacquet had done with the French football team in 1998: to lead Les Bleus to World Cup victory on home soil.

No-one, however, enjoys a duel more than Bernard Laporte, especially when words are the choice of weapon. He admits that he has sometimes made mistakes in his selection of players, but he refuses to accept criticism of his overall game plan, which has not really moved on since 2002.

‘I don’t believe in game plans,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe in winning systems of playing. I believe in men who make these systems successful. I believe in fitness. Look at England. They have been playing more or less with the same patterns as in 2003. But Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson are not there anymore. Full stop.’

England. It is a word you often hear falling from Laporte’s lips, which is a little strange for those of us who recall his frequent flashes of Anglophobia. But what Clive Woodward achieved with England has since become Laporte’s best line of defence and justification for his more pragmatic approach.

When France were systematically dismantled in their 24-7 defeat to England in the 2003 World Cup semi-final in Sydney, a group of very influential people in French rugby known as ‘the French Barbarians’ – Jean-Pierre Rives, Serge Blanco and software tycoon Serge Kampf – had decided that it was time for Laporte to be replaced by Patrice Lagisquet, the former French winger and coach of Biarritz Olympique. Lapasset was on the verge of conceding to their request, but Laporte, using all his personal charisma and communication skills, somehow managed to persuade them to keep faith with him. He explained that, like the failure of Woodward’s England in the 1999 World Cup, the experience of 2003 would actually be an asset for him and his players as they prepare for 2007.

Has he made substantial progress in that direction? Is he sharper in his management? Frankly, there are still some major doubts about his ability to deliver. His inability to get on with the coaches of the big French clubs – Guy Novès at Toulouse, Patrice Lagisquet in Biarritz, and even Fabien Galthié at his former club, Stade Français – is regarded as a chronic lack of maturity. On the other end, the facts cast a warmer light on his performance. His record from 2000 to 2003 was pretty poor: 48 matches played, 27 victories, 20 defeats and a draw. Since then, the statistics read 27 matches played, 20 victories, six defeats and a draw.

France, though, remain an infuriatingly inconsistent enigma. Who knows what French team will turn up on the day: the one that achieved convincing victories over Australia and South Africa last autumn, or the one that succumbed so pitifully to the unfancied Scots?

They say that all great generals, including Napoleon, have one attribute in common: luck. And Laporte has certainly not been short of good fortune during his tenure as French coach. And just when it has seemed that he is one match away from being sacked, Lady Luck rides to his rescue. That was the case in the 2005 Six Nations match against England when some woeful place kicking by Charlie Hodgson and Olly Barkley allowed France to snatch a very unlikely 18-17 success at Twickenham.

Whether that luck will be enough to help France lift the trophy at the World Cup is another matter. To become serious contenders, Les Bleus have to find a few more gifted players in key positions, first at No 10 where Michalak has, for some time, been standing alone as the only player worthy of the shirt.

The South African public, however, should look out for a young flyhalf from Pau, Lionel Beauxis, a raw 22-year-old, who has never even been tested in the European Cup.

They also need a tighthead prop as cover for Pieter de Villiers and a powerful No 8 who could give their pack more direction than Julien Bonnaire has managed. Some other promising players have started to emerge too: Dimitri Swarzewski at hooker, Yannick Nyanga and Rémi Martin in the back row, Florian Fritz in the centre.

What is also reassuring is that some of the old warhorses such as Olivier Magne, Thomas Castaignède and Raphael Ibanez have agreed to give everything in the last great challenge of their careers, even if that means playing a subservient role to their ‘juniors’ during the World Cup campaign. Their influence and experience could prove to be crucial.

A great deal of energy and focus in French rugby has in recent times been directed to September 2007 and the World Cup.

If Laporte can use it in a positive way, keep a cool head and keep his toys in his pram, then Les Bleus will be in with as good a shout as anyone in rugby’s ultimate competition. Who knows? Perhaps ‘Bernie Le Dingue’ will be remembered as ‘Bernie Le Grand.’

By Arnaud David