In-form Wales out to derail France

Wales go into their World Cup semi-final against France as favourites having hit a rich vein of form that mixes defensive nous with attacking flair.

France lose out to Tonga at the 2011 Rugby World Cup
Stewart Baird (File)

Led by 23-year-old captain Sam Warburton, Wales rebounded from an opening 17-16 pool loss to South Africa to rack up victories over Samoa, Namibia and Fiji before outplaying Ireland in last weekend’s 22-10 quarter-final win.

But they’ve been forced into making a change in a key position following that match with utility back James Hook starting in his favoured role of fly-half after Rhys Priestland, one of Wales’s stars at this World Cup, was ruled out with a shoulder injury suffered against the Irish.

Wales coach Warren Gatland opted to start Hook instead of veteran stand-off Stephen Jones, who is on the bench instead.

“Time was against Rhys,” said Gatland. “We’re lucky we haven’t picked up too many injuries in this competition, and we’re lucky to have James to come in,” with the New Zealander adding it had been a “tough call” between Hook and Jones for the No 10 shirt.

Saturday’s match will be Wales’ first semi-final appearance since the inaugural World Cup in 1987, when they were well beaten by the All Blacks.

France have reached the last four despite losing twice in the pool phase, to New Zealand and, in their final group match, Tonga.

But they turned the formbook on its head with a gutsy display against a toothless England, winning 19-12 to advance to the final four and earlier this week France coach Marc Lievremont named an unchanged team.

Twelve of France’s 30 players at this World Cup lived through the disappointment of a semi-final exit four years ago on home soil, with three still in the starting XV: wing Vincent Clerc and flankers Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir, who will captain the side at Auckland’s Eden Park this

After pulling off a shock 20-18 victory over favourites New Zealand in the 2007 quarter-final in Cardiff, the French imploded in the semi-final against England, who went on to lose to South Africa in the final.

And this time around, the French, losing finalists in 1987 and 1999 but yet to win the World Cup, have vowed to do their best to prevent it happening again.

“There are many of us in the squad who went through 2007, we know very well what can happen after an excess of euphoria,” said Dusautoir.

France No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy boldly proclaimed Wales the “All Blacks of the northern hemisphere”.

“They’re a very good team and above all one which is oozing confidence,” he said. “They seem to be very calm among themselves. Even if they’re hassled in the games, they don’t let it go.

“They fall back on their gameplans, what they know how to do. I haven’t really seen a team in this tournament that has made them suffer, that has really been able to destabilise them.

“That’s really a very strong point for them.”

The French have rarely produced two great performances on successive weekends of World Cup knockout action but Warburton said: “I’ve been involved in two squads that have played France and twice we lost.

“But it’s a World Cup and, as the results have shown so far, anything can happen,” the openside flanker added.

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French rugby in turmoil as FFR boss gets suspended sentence over corruption

Lawyers for FFR President Bernard Laporte said he was going to appeal against the court's verdict

French rugby in turmoil as FFR boss gets suspended sentence over corruption

French rugby was reeling Tuesday after the president of the country’s governing body Bernard Laporte was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence on corruption charges nine months before France hosts the game’s World Cup.

Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) president Laporte, 58, was convicted after a French court ruled he showed favouritism in awarding a shirt sponsorship contract for the national side to Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier. He was also banned from holding any rugby post for two years. Both are suspended pending an appeal, which Laporte’s lawyer said was imminent.

Laporte later stepped down from his role as vice-chairman of the sport’s global governing body, World Rugby, pending a review by the body’s ethics officer.

“World Rugby notes the decision by World Rugby vice-chairman Bernard Laporte to self-suspend from all positions held within its governance structures with immediate effect following his conviction by the French court in relation to domestic matters, and pending his appeal,” World Rugby said.

“While acknowledging Laporte’s self-suspension and right of appeal, given the serious nature of the verdict World Rugby’s Executive Committee has referred the matter to its independent ethics officer for review in accordance with its integrity code,” it added.

Resignation call
Laporte faces problems on the domestic front, too, with Florian Grill, who narrowly lost to him in the 2020 election for federation chief, calling for Laporte and the entire board to stand down.

“It is unheard of in rugby, this is an earthquake,” Grill told AFP. “We have never before seen a president of the federation condemned to two
years in prison, even if it suspended.

“We think the 40 members of the board of directors should draw the obvious conclusions and resign.”

French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said the sentence was an “obstacle for Bernard Laporte to be able, as it stands, to continue his mission in good conditions” as federation president, and called for a “new democratic era to allow French rugby to rebound as quickly as possible and sufficiently healthy and solid, with a governance by the federation that will have the full confidence of the clubs”.

The court found that Laporte ensured a series of marketing decisions favourable to Altrad – who was given an 18-month suspended sentence and
€50,000 euro — in exchange for a €180,000 image licensing contract that was never actually carried out.

Altrad’s lawyer said he would study the decision before deciding on whether to appeal.

At the trial’s close in September, prosecutors said they were seeking a three-year prison sentence for Laporte, of which he should serve one behind bars, and the two others on probation.

The friendship and business links between Laporte and Altrad are at the heart of the case.

It goes back to February 2017, when they signed a deal under which Laporte agreed to appear at Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights, in return for €180,000.

But while that sum was  paid to Laporte, prosecutors claim that he neveractually provided the services he signed up for.

Laporte did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed the €1.8 million deal with the businessman making his namesake firm the first-ever sponsor to appear on the French national team’s jerseys.

The Altrad name and logo still features on the shirts thanks to a follow-up deal negotiated by Laporte in 2018 and which prosecutors say bears all the hallmarks of corruption. It is also on the All Blacks’ national squads’ shirts, and New Zealand Rugby is reportedly seeking an urgent meeting with company officials following the court ruling.

Laporte, formerly a highly successful coach who guided France twice to the World Cup semi-finals (2003 and 2007), was also found guilty of favouritism
with regards to Altrad’s Montpellier Herault Rugby (MHR) club.

He was convicted for intervening with French rugby’s federal disciplinary commission to reduce a fine against the club from €70,000 to €20,000 after several telephone calls from Laporte.

While prosecutors saw this and several more incidents as proof of illicit favouritism, Laporte himself had claimed there was no “cause-effect relationship”.

On the last day of the trial in October, Laporte’s lawyer Fanny Colin accused the prosecution of “confirmation bias” by “taking into account only elements backing their original assumptions”.

The verdict comes only nine months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France on September 8, 2023, with matches played in nine stadiums across the country.