The life and times of 'mad' Bernard Laporte
April 10, 2014
It is never boring when Bernard Laporte is around © Getty Images
The world of French rugby is filled with all sorts of wonderful characters but there is no one quite like 'Mad Bernie'.
Bernard Laporte was the man accused of eliminating French flair, he ranks behind only his Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal as the most outspoken individual in the game and in one of his final acts as France coach he managed to convince a team stacked with talent to try to out-English the English with disastrous consequences.
Now the vociferous former scrum-half is currently serving a 16-week touchline ban for his graphic criticism of referee Laurent Cardona, described as: "hopeless, incompetent and who robs us [Toulon] every time he refs us", and those were just the milder terms!
And yet, as he edges closer to potential back-to-back European titles as well as the Bouclier de Brennus, perhaps it is time to appreciate quite how much Laporte has achieved.
While Bernie and his iconic rimless glasses first came to the attention of the majority of British rugby fans in 1999 when he took over the French national job, he'd already secured his place in the French rugby landscape for his efforts as a player.
Although he was never capped, Laporte was the natural leader who captained Bègles-Bordeaux and their notoriously violent front row to the 1991 French title. Serge Simon, Vincent Moscato and Philippe Gimbert never took a step back in their rugby-playing lives, indeed former boxer Moscato is best-known for his red card in Le Crunch in 1992. However, when 'Bernie le Dingue' told them what to do, even these three bruisers got into line.
Once his playing days were over, Laporte got his big chance when he was appointed head coach of Stade Français in 1995, then in the third division but under the ownership of radio magnate Max Guazzini.
After consecutive promotions in his first two years, Laporte led a star-studded Stade team to the Bouclier de Brennus in their first season back in the elite, and despite falling in the quarter-finals the following year, he had done enough to earn his spot with the French team.
In eight years Laporte led France to four Six Nations titles including two Grand Slams, which makes him the competition's most successful coach since the arrival of Italy, but in contrast he twice fell short at the semi-final stage of the World Cup, both times to England.
The second of those losses, in 2007, came after France's shock defeat in the World Cup opener against Argentina, from which would soon emerge a classic Bernie anecdote.
Feeling the need to motivate his players before they kicked off a home World Cup, Laporte asked Clément Poitrenaud to read a letter from a teenage member of the French resistance, Guy Moquet, to his family just before his execution in front of the firing squad in 1941.
The plan backfired in spectacular fashion, with Les Bleus slipping to a 17-12 loss to the Pumas and while they would gain some measure of redemption by knocking out favourites New Zealand in Cardiff in the last eight, even Bernie must feel 2007 was a golden opportunity missed.
During his time in charge of France, Laporte managed to instil a level of discipline which had been the side's Achilles heel for decades, but the criticism often levelled at him was the took the soul out of the French team.
Lifting the Heineken Cup alongside Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal © Getty Images
The closest France have had to a foreign coach in terms of mentality, Laporte was one of the few French proponents of physical preparation and more structured attacking play. But above all he championed 'le combat', which to him was the most important part of the game.
The struggles of his successors Marc Lièvremont and particularly Philippe Saint-André on the international stage have put some of the criticism he received into context, although it's fair to say his conservatism at times proved costly, never more so than against England in 2007.
Having stepped away from rugby for an ill-fated stint in politics as French sports minister, Laporte returned to his first love, eventually succeeding Saint-André in Toulon in 2012.
Final defeats in the Amlin Cup and the Top 14 in his first season were followed by the club's historic European crown last year at the expense of Clermont, with a possible double still very much on track this season.
The bigger question for Laporte - whose story is all the more remarkable when you consider he spent several months in a coma as a 20-year-old after a serious car accident - is what happens next?
Out of contract at the end of the season, Laporte seems to be edging closer to a new contract with the Galacticos in Toulon, but another intriguing possibility has now emerged.
In 2016 Pierre Camou will step down from his position as president of the French Federation, and after Laporte's frustrations with officials this season, as well as the federation itself, he would certainly provide an explosive new candidate to succeed Camou.
The man himself admits the challenge is one that appeals to him, although he insists he is yet to make any decision.
It remains to be seen whether Laporte has burned too many bridges to win any potential vote, but after his success as both a player and particularly as a coach, there are few who'd back against Bernie le Dingue doing the same again with the FFR.
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