RUGBY UNION: Detractors round on Laporte's inconsistency

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LAPORTE MAY seem an unfortunate name for a man in a precarious profession. Could Bernard Laporte, the garrulous, bald, bookish-looking coach of le quinze de France, be shown the door if France flop at Twickenham tomorrow? Defeat against England is not a disgrace. Laporte might survive for a while. But the knives are finally out - in the French press, among some officials and, it is said, among some senior players - for a man whose position seemed padlocked and barred a couple of years ago.

Laporte, now in his sixth year as entraineur of the national team, was seen as the man who could bring professionalism and consistency to French international rugby. He was seen as a Wenger of the oval ball, a man who had never approached the heights as a player but had the science and the passion and the grit and the leadership skills to take France into the new, professional age.

Even when France were flattened by England in the mud of the World Cup semi-final in 2003, Laporte's image as a kind of brutal, clear-minded sports intellectual - a man with a plan - survived largely intact.

No more. With only two years left before France hosts the World Cup, a series of disastrous performances and baffling selection decisions have left Laporte's reputation hanging off its hinges. His team selection for tomorrow's match at Twickenham produced mocking headlines in the French press. "What is Bernard Laporte playing at?" said Le Parisien on Thursday. "Bernard Laporte invites confusion," said Le Figaro. "Where is Laporte going?" asked L'Equipe in a front-page headline yesterday.

Laporte's performances in the press melee, previously irreproachable, have become sadly muddled.

Two weeks ago, he said that a reliable kicker was "not essential" in international rugby. At the weekend, after a poor performance and lucky victory against Scotland, including a poor kicking display, he said that the Castres fly-half Yann Delaigue would remain the specialist kicker, even if he could not kick. Yann would have to learn how to kick from fly- half, Laporte said. The scrum-half position was much too important to give to someone who was just a kicker.

On Wednesday, Laporte announced that Dimitri Yachvili, the man who kicked England to death (with 19 points) to win the Grand Slam for France last year, would return tomorrow as scrum-half - and kicker. Or rather, he said, Yann Delaigue would remain the team's official kicker but Yachvili would kick at Twickers.

There was still no place for Frederic Michalak, France's young (kicking) fly-half in the World Cup, who is regarded by many - including it is said Laporte - as a future star.

Perfectly clear? At the same time, Laporte picked Julien Bonnaire at No 8, even though he rarely plays No 8 for his club, Bourgoin (and not at all this season). He picked Sebastien Chabal, who has drawn rave reviews at No 8 for Sale this year, as a wing forward. Another man who will have to "learn how to be a specialist" while playing Test rugby?

Even before the Scotland game, following the heavy defeat by New Zealand and a loss to Argentina in the autumn, there were signs that Laporte's welcome was wearing thin. Last month, a former president of the Federation Francaise de Rugby, Albert Ferrasse, said that France were "inviting a thrashing" during the Six Nations.

"But that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that Bernard Laporte talks too much. You'd think he'd invented rugby," Ferrasse said.

"The core of the complaint against Laporte is that there is no coherence to his selections," another French rugby official said last week. "Two years after one World Cup, and two years before a Word Cup which will be played in France - when the nation will demand a high performance - there is no clear shape yet emerging in our team. Are we focusing on youth? Are we relying on a core of older players? Who can say?"

Laporte, 40, comes from Rodez in the southern foothills of the Massif Central, on the edge of the great, rugby-playing triangle in south western France. He played as a schoolboy and teenager at Gaillac, which recently renamed the local stadium after the local hero. Laporte cried at the ceremony, which surprised no-one. He has a reputation as a tough, emotional man, and often a very funny man, someone who is quick to anger but also quick to tears.

In the 1980s and early 1990s he played scrum-half (and won the national championship) with a notoriously hard Begles-Bordeaux team. In 1995, he became the trainer of the newly-created Paris club, Stade Francais, and took them into the elite of French rugby in two years and to the national title in three.

He became the national coach in November 1999, and has taken France to the Six Nations Grand Slam on two occasions, in 2002 and 2004. Outside rugby, he has a quarter share in a cabaret-restaurant in Paris, the Ole Bodega, which specialises in south western cuisine and folk music. He is married, with 14-year-old twins.

Acquaintances say that the great disappointment of Laporte's life was the 2003 World Cup - not just because France lost but that England won. Laporte is a great admirer of Australian rugby. He had wanted to be the first man to put northern hemisphere rugby on an equal footing with the south. England got there ahead of him.

Even before that misfortune, Laporte had a fixation with England which - even for a French rugby official - borders on the obsessional. He was once asked to name his favourite person on history. "William the Conqueror, because he defeated the English." And his favourite flower? "Anything but the rose."

The coach's doubters in the French rugby press say they have a secret fear for tomorrow's match: that Laporte's passionate desire to beat the English will inspire one of those brilliant, one-off performances of which France have always been capable.

France will win; Laporte's position will be secured; and the future will be as confused as ever.