Laporte'scrusade to clean up the game

France's disciplinarian rugby union coach sidesteps controversy over Johnson
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The Independent Online

Bernard Laporte has never been known for his diplomacy. A former scrum-half with a loud voice, a short fuse and a hot temper, France's national coach is not a man to beat about the bush.

When, for instance, on the Sunday evening following Les Tricolores' opening game of the championship against Italy, French television broadcast excerpts of his half-time team-talk, millions of viewers in France watched aghast as he belittled, berated and abused his players. And this, one shuddered, was the censored version, watered-down for public viewing.

Consequently, as soon as it was announced that an appeal would be launched against Martin Johnson's three-week suspension, thus delaying the process long enough to allow him to lead England against France in Paris on Saturday, there were many who were braced in anticipation of Laporte's outraged reaction.

After years of the perfidious "Rosbifs" manipulating the pre-match build-up with tales of French thuggery and ungentlemanly garlic-scented conduct, the boot was finally on the other foot. At last it seemed, the 37-year-old Laporte had a perfect opportunity to denounce publicly yet another example of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy.

Despite relentless goading from the French media, however, Laporte has obstinately refused to enter the fray. And, while the former captain Fabien Pelous, called Leicester's decision to appeal against Johnson's suspension "hypocritical and unacceptable", the man the players have nick-named "Le Kaiser" has remained aloof from the squabble, successfully wrong-footing the media with a mixture of strategic good sense and uncustomary elegance.

"I don't give a damn about what the English do," he said. "This Johnson affair is none of my business, and quite frankly when it comes down to it, I would prefer to beat an English team at full strength."

He was quick to add, however, that this does not stop him from having an opinion about the incident involving Johnson and the Saracens' hooker Robbie Russell. "From the very beginning, my position on the Johnson incident has been quite clear. I have stated in no uncertain terms that what he did on the field was not good for the image of our sport. It is not a good advertisement for rugby," insists Laporte. "But, as a player, Johnson is someone I admire. I don't know him as a person, but I have a lot of respect for him as a player, because he is one of the leading second-rowers in the world, and a symbol of world rugby."

Laporte says he understands the decision to exploit the loophole in the RFU regulations, which allows Johnson to play against France pending his appeal. A loophole, incidentally, which does not exist in French regulations. "Frankly, I empathise with him. I understand his desire to play in a game such as France-England. And I am the first to say that I, too, would like him to play."

Having already successfully taken possession of the moral high ground by voluntarily suspending his own players, Laporte is now even more solidly entrenched in the strategic zone which, ever since Agincourt and beyond, the English have always regarded as theirs by right. After all, well before Johnson added fuel to his fire, the France coach had taken his own independent steps to improve the image of the French XV.

"There is nothing revolutionary in what I am doing. I am simply trying to get my players to understand that there are some things which are permitted, and others which are not," he said.

Before the game against Wales two weeks ago, Laporte censured two key internationals who had been shown yellow cards for what he considered to be "unacceptable acts". The second-rower David Auradou, undoubtedly France's best line-out forward, was dropped completely from the squad after receiving a yellow-card for a stamping offence against Italy. Another second-rower, Pelous, was relegated to the reserves in Cardiff after similarly careless use of the boot in a club game for Toulouse against Montauban.

"I am trying to make them understand that these acts are inadmissible," Laporte stresses. "Auradou's stamping was more an act of stupidity than of dirty play. He did not even hurt the Italian player on the ground, but I suspended him because it was a selfish act, and because for 10 minutes his team-mates had to fill in for him. I wanted him to realise that by being yellow-carded he simply punished his own team."

Just as Pierre Berbizier, one of his predecessors had done in the years 1993 to 1995, successfully changing the image and reputation of the French side in the international arena, Laporte has made discipline one of the principal platforms of the team. Not only because he realises that in order to win at the top level, French sides have to be seen to be even more disciplined than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, but also because of his wider perspective on the future of the game.

"What troubles me is that, whether the players are called Auradou, Pelous or Johnson, we are talking about the future of our sport and if we want rugby to become more successful and more médiatique [media friendly], we have to take a hard line on violence," he says. "I am worried about what the mothers think when they see such incidents on the field of play. And the fact that they are going to start wondering if they will allow their young sons to play rugby. We have a great sport, a sport whose virtues and values are the envy of all others. It is a physical game but there are certain limits which have to be respected, otherwise I am afraid our game will start to lose popularity."

All a bit ironic, some may say, coming from a man who captained the fearsome Bègles side to an historic victory in the French championship in 1991. With Laporte in command, Bègles wreaked havoc throughout France, thanks notably to their rugged front row of Serge Simon, Vincent Moscato and Philippe Gimbert, a trio of hell-raisers who took no prisoners and who cultivated the escaped-convict look long before shaven heads became fashionable

"We were no angels," admits Laporte. "But that was a rugby of another time. The game was different then. It was more violent, but hey, we never killed anyone! And if you compared us to the great Béziers team they were 20 times worse than we were."

Béziers dominated French rugby in the 1970s, thanks to their dreaded pack of forwards, epitomised by Michel Palmié, Alain Estève, Armand Vaquerin et al.

Growing up in the small south-west town of Gaillac, Laporte admits that discipline was not one of the key elements of his rugby upbringing. "But," he adds, "no one ever told me I had to be violent either. I perhaps had a gift for motivating my forwards, but violence had no part in my rugby culture, and I never once told a player to kick another player in the head. Never!"

"I am all for the physical commitment of rugby, it's part of the game, and there are enough ways to hurt your opposition purely through being totally committed physically. There will always be the odd incident, the odd bad-tempered act in a game of rugby," insists Laporte. "But when I see full-blooded punches which split a player's eyebrow, or the sort of stamping I saw in last weekend's Super-12 games, I begin to worry."

From the wind-swept heights of his lofty moral perch, Laporte's concern is for rugby and its image as a global game. "International rugby players are now professional sportsmen. As professionals they have rights, but they also have responsibilities, and their first responsibility is to the promotion of the game of rugby. What I want is for players like Johnson to be respected when they come to France, and not to be booed by the public. He is a great player and people should be keen to see him play, but I am worried that the current context might change this."