Rugby Union: Skrela leaves door ajar for Laporte

The coach can journey from Stade to France.
Click to follow
WHATEVER HAPPENED to doing the honourable thing? When New Zealand lost that freakish semi-final to France in the World Cup, their manager, John Hart, resigned immediately. Similarly, despite having guided the French to back-to-back Grand Slams and a World Cup final, Jean-Claude Skrela walked away from the Tricolores on Tuesday. And England?

At the very time Skrela was announcing his decision to quit, Clive Woodward was giving his reasons for staying. It was wonderfully ironic that while the Rugby Football Union were opting to maintain the status quo, their French counterparts, the Federation Francaise de Rugby (FFR), were acting swiftly and positively. There is certainly no contentment on the continent.

Several names were linked with the French post, including those of the former internationals Philippe Sella and Richard Astre, but Bernard Lapasset, the president of the FFR, seems to have chosen the coach of Stade Francais, Bernard Laporte, who should be officially appointed today.

"Let's face it," Laporte said, somewhat cagily, as his team prepared for today's European Cup Pool A match against Glasgow Caledonians. "You would have to be a fool not to accept the job. If it is offered to me, I'll say yes. I want to coach the French team." His chairman, predictably, has had his say, not only because Laporte is contracted to the Paris club until 2004, but mainly because the 35-year-old has singlehandedly transformed Stade Francais from rank outsiders to leading lights. "Ultimately, I will not stand in his way," Max Guazzini said. "It's not my style. But Bernard can't just leave. He'll have to finish the season, in some capacity or another, with us." Beware of departures a la Keegan.

Laporte was little more than average as a player and his only claim to fame at club level was to captain Begles to the championship in 1991. It is as a coach, however, that he has made his name. In the space of four years, he has lifted Stade Francais, traditionally the poor relations of Parisian rugby behind Racing Club de France, from third division minnows to first division champions in 1998 and cup winners earlier this year.

Laporte may not be a big name in the sport, but there is a feeling that he has the ideas and, crucially, the strength of character to see them through. So far as Thierry Lacroix, the former France stand-off, is concerned, the fact that Laporte was not a star could prove an advantage. "I saw it in my time at Harlequins," he said. "Just because you were a great player doesn't mean you'll be a great coach. There is a huge difference between playing and coaching."

"Laporte was not an international," added Lacroix during training for Saracens' European Cup Pool D match at Colomiers today. "He has never had a reputation to precede him. He is a strong character, as he proved when guiding a real mish-mash of temperamental players [Laurent Cabannes, Christophe Dominici, Christophe Juillet] to the league title last year. He has made Stade Francais."

So, is he the man for the national job? "I would be very happy if he was appointed," Lacroix said. "He has excellent ideas, is well versed in the various styles, and is open to new suggestions and ideas. He would be the first French manager really to understand there are good things being done outside France. He's the only French coach I know who has travelled and learned about other systems. He understands that rugby has taken a monumental leap forward and changed forever. His willingness to absorb other managers' views makes him unique."

Lacroix also believes Skrela's predecessor, Pierre Berbizier, would have been ideally suited to the task today - had he not had his chance from 1991 to 1995. "He was ahead of his time," said the top points scorer of the 1995 World Cup. "Nobody was ready for the things he tried to put in place at the time. He was a professional coach in an amateur era."

Whether or not the timing of Skrela's departure is ideal - many felt he had finally got the right balance in the team - is open to question, but he leaves with his head held high. Only the statisticians will remember the defeats by Italy and Tonga, or the uninspiring performances in the matches leading up to, and during, the early stages of the 1999 World Cup. What French rugby fans, and fans of French rugby, will remember the Skrela era for are two successive Grand Slam triumphs - the second of which, in 1998, was sealed with a 51-0 demolition of Wales - and the semi-final defeat of New Zealand three weeks ago.

Lacroix has no doubts that Skrela has done the proper thing. "He is leaving at the right time and in a good light," he said. "He has clearly given a lot to the game, but has possibly felt the strain a bit recently, both mentally and physically." According to Jo Maso, one of Skrela's lieutenants, the time had come for the man nicknamed Apollo to end his reign. Four years and 52 matches in charge of the mercurial Tricolores is enough to drain even the hardiest of managers, so when his trademark chiselled looks were lately replaced by those gaunt features, Skrela knew he had to walk away.

"He lost six kilos in four years," Maso said. "Being manager of the French team is a demanding job, one which rarely grants you any privacy. That's why I can understand that he wants to withdraw himself from the limelight."

Skrela may have taken a step back, but French rugby undoubtedly moved forward under his stewardship. His decision to quit, when both the team and the sport are on a high in France, ensures his momentum will continue. "He leaves by the front door," was the headline on the front page of Thursday's L'Equipe. Laporte is now ready for his grand entrance.