The translator arrives on time but Bernard Laporte and The Irish Times are early.
The Irish Times (in well-practiced French): "Désolé je ne parle pas Francais."
Laporte (in flawless English): “And I apologise for my poor English.”
When the interview concludes, Laporte slips back into decent English.
The former France national coach for two World Cups cycles (1999-2007), the former French Minister for Sport (2007-09), the rugby brain behind Mourad Boudjellal’s cash rich Toulon for five seasons (2011-16) and currently, having switched from poacher to game-keeper, the president of the French Rugby Federation, asks about Joe Schmidt’s future in Ireland.
Laporte presumes Warren Gatland is favourite to be the next All Blacks coach. We disagree and explain why.
A man of the 53-year-old's stature presumably knows the answers to most questions he asks, especially of a journalist, but he still wonders if Schmidt will return to New Zealand in 2019. We wonder if he will end up in France working for Laporte. He shrugs but seems amenable to the idea. He asks about Paul O'Connell – who he signed for Toulon before injury scuppered the deal – and seems surprised to learn he's working with the Munster academy. The conversation flows into the relationship between Schmidt the coach and O'Connell the captain, about how they instantly amalgamated the tribes.
Finally, he wants to know what Brian O’Driscoll is up to. Coaching?
No, he’s working in media among other ventures.
“Brian is a good man,” says Laporte before adding: “Anything about this?”
He nods at the Women's Rugby World Cup poster – we are in the palatial French embassy on Ailesbury Road for the squad's champagne reception.
For Laporte, right now, the primary focus is to outwit, outspend and out-politic the Irish and South African bids for the 2023 World Cup.
Voting takes place November 15th. In the meantime bidders must circumnavigate the globe (in May the Irish delegation went to Outer Mongolia). Requirements include an astute rugby mind, but equally an appreciation of geopolitics. The IRFU have Dick Spring and O'Driscoll fronting their bid. France have Laporte.
The Irish Times: If successful, France 2023 would happen before Paris 2024. You have said they are "mutually reinforcing" but having visited Japan in June it was clear that both the tournament organising committee and World Rugby have concerns about the Rugby World Cup being overshadowed by the Olympics. How do you allay such concerns?
Bernard Laporte: On the contrary, it is an added value. We have the best candidacy. The only issues that come back are security. The fact that the IOC is going to give the Olympic Games to Paris does show, clearly, when it comes to security that assurances have been given and therefore it is good to have the 2024 Games. And then, for selfish reasons, it is always better to be there before the Olympic Games rather than after.
The Irish Times: But World Rugby have expressed an issue with their World Cup being in the shadow of the Tokyo Olympics. What can you say to assuage their fears of repeat problems?
Bernard Laporte: There is nothing to say to World Rugby. It is not World Rugby that will be voting.
The Irish Times: But before the voting process on November 15th World Rugby will publicly recommend one of the three bids – Ireland, France or South Africa . . .
Bernard Laporte: And I am part of World Rugby because I have been elected, and I have never felt any fears.
The Irish Times: Okay, say WR give their official support to Ireland or South Africa, can France still win the bid?
Bernard Laporte: The aim is to have the best bid and then you have to convince [voters]. What we are saying is when it comes to the World Cup you have to take into account economic factors – 94 per cent of WR's income comes from the Rugby World Cup. France has 66 million inhabitants – 2.6 million tickets will be sold (only 2.4 million were sold for Euro 2016) which means over the seven weeks the stadiums will be full. That is the added value.
The Irish Times: Recently you said, "driving this project is like a game". Do you mean it is more politics than sport?
Bernard Laporte: I am a player and a rugby coach so competition is in me. It is a pleasure to go and defend our bid. After that, as in every election, the rugby associations will decide who wins. The fact there are three candidates means we can anticipate a second round. (Switching to English Laporte adds, "And then the winner will be France.")
When you play rugby, if you do everything right then it doesn't matter what the opponent does if you are going to win
The Irish Times: You are off on some crucial trips in the coming weeks – Medellin, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, Wales and Japan – do you need to secure votes on these trips, and how do you intend to do that?
Bernard Laporte: Every time we do a presentation it is to convince people our bid is the best. Ireland and South Africa are doing the same, but the more countries you go visit the more they can assess. Somebody cannot really decide upon a bid they have not seen.
The Irish Times: It's true that France has an impressive record of hosting major sporting tournaments but what do you see as the major strengths in the South Africa and Ireland bids?
Bernard Laporte: I am playing my game so I don't concern myself with the other bids. When you play rugby, if you do everything right then it doesn't matter what the opponent does if you are going to win. Often you lose a game because you haven't done what you are supposed to do. This is the same thing.
The Irish Times: That is sport, isn't this is a little more complicated?
Bernard Laporte: No. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I am not going to speak about the weaknesses of the South African or Irish bids, I am only going to speak about the quality of the French bid.
The Irish Times: You mentioned security. Having recently visited Paris and Nice, the sight of very young yet heavily armed soldiers mingling with tourists on the streets is stark, and everyone understands why but how do you explain to the rest of the world that France will be a safe country to visit for the Rugby World Cup?
Bernard Laporte: Unfortunately, with everything that has happened, there are state services that are in place that are very sophisticated and I think the fact we got 2024 shows clearly that there are security assurances that have been given.
The Irish Times: You have spoken about how strong the French bid is economically (€200 million was underwritten by the French state despite WR only needing a €158 million guarantee and they predict superior ticket sales to Ireland and SA), but moving past profit, and perhaps learning from 2007, why should the World Cup return to France after just 16 years?
Bernard Laporte: First of all we have experience. We know what worked well and what didn't so that's an advantage. Beyond the economic issue, during the seven weeks we have the quality of airports and the quality of transport. The quality of our hotels – be that for teams or, most importantly, for fans.
The Irish Times: Ireland have weaknesses in all those areas, but there is almost a romantic idea of the tournament coming to this island for the first time – you see that argument and the value of that?
Bernard Laporte: Oui, and I understand that, of course.
The Irish Times: Finally, talk about the importance of the final presentation in London on September 25th and the presence of Emmanuel Macron?
Bernard Laporte: It is the French President of the Republic who decided to do that, not us. He went to defend our candidature in Lausanne for the Olympic Games and he told us – "I want to come and defend the candidature." I didn't tell him to come.
WORLD CUP 2023 – THE VOTING PROCESS:
When is the vote?
Who are the bidding nations?
South Africa, Ireland and France. None of them can vote.
There are 39 possible votes. 20 votes will secure the World Cup. The Six Nations unions and the Sanzaar (New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina) unions have three votes each. Japan and the six regional associations – Oceania Rugby, Sudamerica Rugby, Rugby Americas North (RAN), Rugby Europe, Rugby Africa and Asia Rugby – have two votes each. Finally, Georgia, Canada, USA and Romania get one vote each.
Can a union/region split their votes?
Yes. They can do as they see fit or are mandated. Individual unions can split their votes but the likelihood is a united front (hence the term “union”). A union/region can also abstain.
Argentina has five votes?
No, the newest tier one nation has three but they would have an influence on the two votes from Sudamerica. RAN, for example, has 15 member unions including Mexico and the Caribbean unions but the US and Canada retain a strong influence. As do New Zealand in Oceania, South Africa in Africa, Japan in Asia and France in Europe.
Sounds like a job for Pat Hickey . . .
Pat was temporarily part of the Irish bid.
Can World Rugby influence the process?
Yes. In October they will recommend one from the the French, Irish or South African bids. There is a final presentation in London on September 25th.
Can World Rugby influence the voting?
Yes. In the event of no winner after the first ballot on November 15th the bid with the least votes will be eliminated. If there is still a tie after the second ballot then World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont (formerly of Question of Sport fame) can call for a third ballot or exercise the casting vote.
Ireland are 1/3 favourites with France and South Africa neck and neck at 9/2.
What’s the strongest bid?
France claim they will bring in the most money. Ireland are hanging it on a unified island and unique experience for all. The South African government only recently got behind their bid so . . .