French camp scrambling hard to explain how the bubble burst
Bernard Laporte backs coach Fabien Galthié as fallout continues from Covid-19 outbreak
France head coach Fabien Galthié and French Rugby Federatio n president Bernard Laporte have come under pressure over the outbreak of Covid-19 in the French camp. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images
The storm enveloping the head coach of the French team, Fabien Galthié, and the president of the French Federation, Bernard Laporte, is showing no signs of abating.
The fate of the two men, who have been friends for 20 years dating back to their time together at Stade Francais and subsequently Toulon, have never been more closely linked. This follows the French minister for sport, Roxana Maracineanu, demanding that the FFR complete an internal investigation into the outbreak of Covid-19 which caused the postponement of last Sunday’s scheduled Six Nations game between France and Scotland as more of the failings in the squad’s bio-secure bubble come to light.
Having deliberated at length whether to grant the French team exemption as elite athletes before the 2021 Six Nations, Maracineanu is clearly upset by the cluster of Covid-19 cases in the French camp which has seen 12 players and four support staff, including Galthié, test positive in the build-up to the Scottish game.
At the very least, the management of the squad’s bubble in their Marcoussis base appears to have been amateur and even incompetent, also bearing in mind that there have previously been outbreaks of the virus in the French under-20s, French men’s sevens squad and women’s squad.
Serge Simon, the vice-president and therefore president elect of the FFR, is a qualified doctor who is the ‘covid manager’ overseeing all these French squads and Maracineanu has rebuffed him by insisting on dealing only with Laporte.
But speaking on France 3 on Sunday night, Laporte maintained he was totally supporting both Galthié and Simon, vowing that Galthié would remain as the head coach of Les Bleus until the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
Indeed, with the home World Cup in mind, Laporte has no desire to remove Galthié, who has the French team playing their best rugby in a decade, witness their climb to third in the world ranking for the first time since 2011. Laporte also issued a thinly veiled threat that if there any more leaks from inside Marcoussis, those responsible will be fired.
This followed reports in both L’Équipe and Midi Olimpique that Galthié had left the squad’s base the day after the first-round match against Italy in Rome to watch his son play for the Colomiers espoirs against their Stade Francais counterparts at the Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris.
Laporte confirmed that Galthié had admitted this to him, but had worn a mask at all times and therefore did not breach any protocols. Similarly, media reports that some of the French squad vacated their hotel base in Rome to take to the streets and go to a café for some waffles, of all things, were also confirmed by Laporte, but likewise these were not deemed a breach of the protocols.
Furthermore, there have already been clear signals that the internal investigation will not implicate Galthié or Simon.
Roger Salamon, an epidemiologist and current president of the FFR medical commission, will be responsible for leading the investigating, before submitting his report to the general secretary of the FFR, Christian Dullin, who will hand over to the ministry of sports on Wednesday evening.
In an interview with Midi Olympique, Salamon explained the reasons for the epidemic outbreak that led to the postponement of France-Scotland game when declaring: “The first thing that comes to mind is that the France team have been unlucky. I have no one to protect and I can assure you that the protocol put in place was and still is rigorous . Moreover, the doctors of the other nations of the Six Nations had taken as a model our protocol and the establishment of a sanitary bubble as an example.
“Only, with this virus and particularly its so-called English variant, the zero risk does not exist. From an infection which concerned a player with the sevens, the virus circulated through the teams of France and in particular the large one and resulted in the catastrophe which one knows. And when I speak of bad luck, it is that after, however, seven days of isolation, there were cases on the eighth day, the ninth and even on D + 10!”
This highlights the risks taken in having some sevens players provide opposition for the French backs in training. It has also been revealed, and confirmed, that following their win over Ireland in Dublin when the squad returned to their Marcoussis base they had celebrated with an internal party.
“At the time they were all negative and stayed between them,” said Salamon. “One can think that it was perhaps not necessarily the best thing to do, but they had just spent 80 minutes together in the field, in short, it would be too easy to incriminate that moment.
“We can see it in civilian life, the virus has entered all strata of the populations. President Macron, who has been infected, is proof that despite all the protections, zero risk does not exist. It is not a problem of recklessness!”
Florian Grill, who recently ran against Laporte in the FFR presidential elections, on Sunday called for the opening of “an independent investigation” to shed light on the cluster in the French squad to reassure themselves and everyone else in French rugby, and out of respect for the amateur game which has been effectively ceased for a year.
“We cannot hope to be world champions in 2023 if we build on a hypothesis that would be far-fetched. It is better to speak the truth, assume it and draw conclusions if there are consequences to be drawn,” said Grill.
Asked about Grill’s request on RTL on Sunday evening, Maracineanu said that she would wait until being furnished with the report from the FFR investigation and then decide.
“We have staff who are placed with the federations, sports technical executives who can also intervene for this kind of investigation. It is also up to Bernard Laporte to measure everything and to take his responsibilities in this search for truth,” warned the minister.
In the expectation that France will be allowed to continue in this year’s tournament, Six Nations organisers are looking at alternative dates for the France-Scotland game, with Tuesday, March 9th under consideration as well as dates after the scheduled final day on March 20th.