A nation expects as Laporte's blueprint faces final test

France's coach has ignored no detail in his meticulous preparation for the World Cup, but can he deliver the ultimate prize? Hugh Godwin reports
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The Independent Online

Whatever happens in the World Cup, Bernard Laporte has been rubber-stamped with the mark of statesmanship.

The France coach will suffer all manner of ignominy if his painstaking plans for the host nation end in failure, but either way he has been promised a post in Nicolas Sarkozy's government as minister of youth and sport when the final ball has been kicked and the medal-giving done. Even Sir Clive Woodward had to win the thing first before he got a knighthood and an Olympic gig.

There are others better qualified to judge whether this is a sign of wishy-washy French politics. It is certainly a tribute to the 43-year-old Laporte's determined rise from blue-collar background to national celebrity and public service. Still, as with Woodward, whose team swept Laporte's France away in a Sydney semi-final on the way to winning in 2003, only one result now will do.

That semi-final helped define the pair of them: winner and loser, at the risk of being simplistic, though that's what World Cups do to the normally labyrinthine rugby debate. Laporte's France – incredibly and pathetically – blamed the rain in Sydney for putting them off their game. Young fly-half Freddy Michalak folded under the pressure of England's pack, and looked in vain for the vaunted back row of Serge Betsen, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy to help him out.

The result was an attempt by an influential group including Jean-Pierre Rives and Serge Blanco to get rid of Laporte. He staved it off, promising success in 2007, and otherwise his record since he got the French job at the start of 2000 has been more good than bad.

In eight cracks at the Six Nations his side have won four, including the last two years, with Grand Slams coming in 2002 and 2004. But for Laporte to win the World Cup – and France have never done it before – it will need the fulfilment of a clear and bravely-pursued plan; and in many senses one which follows the Woodward way.

In 2002 the French Federation opened a £20m rugby training centre at Marcoussis, near Paris, (nicknamed 'Marcatraz' by France's captain, Raphael Ibanez, for the long stretches the players have spent there).

Laporte filled it with specialist coaches and all the other add-ons a modern team is thought to need. Getting France to scrummage well is never much more than a matter of tweaking (though it did not help when possibly the best prop, Sylvain Marconnet, slipped over teaching his daughter to ski last winter and broke a leg, putting him out of the World Cup).

Other areas were more needy. In September 2000, Laporte hired a nomadic Yorkshireman with a rugby league background, David Ellis, to be the defence coach. Together they waged war on France's ancient Achilles heel, indiscipline. David Auradou, a second row rated highly by Martin Johnson no less, was one of several players dropped for a match or more by Laporte for receiving a yellow card. Discipline has certainly been improved.

Laporte and Ellis hammered home that there is more to defence than preventing tries. England did not cross the French goalline in the 2003 semi but Jonny Wilkinson kicked Les Bleus to death with penalties and drop goals. Fast forward to last month's warm-up match in Marseille, when France won 22-7 with plenty to spare and England conceded twice the number of penalties their opponents did. Unthinkable, before Laporte.

He was a scrum-half and a French Championship winner with Bègles-Bordeaux in 1991, before turning to coaching. A couple of seasons at Stade Bordelais (1993-1995) brought Laporte to the attention of the flamboyant media mogul and chairman of Stade Français, Max Guazzini. They hit it off and together they not so much roused as rocket-launched a sleeping Parisian giant. Stade Français won the Third Division in 1996, the Second Division in 1997 and a first French Championship for 80 years in 1998.

At Guazzini's side, Laporte came into contact with the Paris sets of socialites, show business, finance and politics. He met and became a supporter of Sarkozy in Arcachon on the Atlantic coast, where Laporte once had a highly lucrative stake in a casino. Laporte is a sparky son of a fruit and veg trader in France's south-west. With his interests in bars, restaurants, campsites and other businesses he has been described as "a kind of French Terry Venables".

When Laporte became coach of France – twiddling his John Lennon spectacles and delivering verbal verdicts with a rapid-fire tongue – he appeared inscrutable to British eyes. We smiled at learning his nickname among the squad was the Kaiser. Hmm, ruthless, teutonic-looking, tick that box. In fact it was Keyser as in Soze, the manipulative and ultra-stealthy character in the Usual Suspects.

Someone to be feared and respected, yes, but Laporte is also garrulous and "out there". He co-hosts a weekly radio phone-in show, Laporte Live!, and in July he was censured by his own Federation and made to write a letter of apology after verbally abusing Stuart Dickinson, the Australian who had refereed an under-strength France on tour in New Zealand.

At a post-match press conference Laporte bats opinions back and forth with the team manager, Jo Maso, who survives from the Jean Claude Skréla and Pierre Villepreux regime which lost the 1999 World Cup final to Australia. Some call it the "Jo and Bernie Show". In their other matches building up to this World Cup the French have beaten England at Twickenham and Wales in Cardiff. "We are pleased with the victory but it's more about the way we played," said Laporte after the 21-15 success at Twickenham when Sébastien Chabal blasted to a late try. "We are pleased that we ran a lot of ball, because we know if we just went with the physical against England we could be in trouble."

This is no admission that French flair is back in fashion. Rather it is as far as Laporte will go in acknowledging France's attacking traditions, with perhaps only New Zealand able to match Les Bleus' effectiveness in the backs when the forwards get it right. One shrewd observer, the former South Africa captain, Joost van der Westhuizen, said he has never seen a France side so well conditioned.

And arguably the most telling and impressive performance under Laporte was last season's Six Nations victory over Wales in Paris. The Welsh ran in a couple of early tries. The old French cock would have choked on its ruffled feathers. Portentously under the floodlights of Stade de France, venue for next month's final, the team punched their legitimate weight.

They drove up the middle of the field through Yannick Jauzion, the big centre, and umpteen quick-thinking forwards, and won easily. If the price is that the ball will not flash from wing to wing like a demented fruitbat, Laporte will pay it. He has tinkered almost endlessly with different combinations, but the pragmatic David Skrela has been first choice fly-half of late.

Another notable test case under the scheming Laporte is Chabal. The bearded wonder fell out with the coach over his position – Chabal considered himself a No8, Laporte preferred him on the blindside, if at all. Now it seems Chabal is regarded as an impact player, and in the second row if needs be.

Having once gone off to Sale from Bourgoin in a huff, he is in the form of his life – and at Laporte's disposal. "For Chabal to play for 15 minutes at Twickenham and win man of the match was pretty good," said Laporte, smiling his wicked barrow-boy-done-great smile.

Woodward understood the fine line between having every eventuality covered, and being derided for not quite knowing what you are doing. A little gold pot in Bernard Laporte's hands would put a magisterial ending before a ministerial beginning.

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