In the quiet before the storm of the World Cup and a new European season, we sat down for a chat with one of the most outspoken figures in the game, former France and current Toulon boss, Bernard Laporte.
With three European Cup titles, two Six Nations Grand Slams and two French championships (with different clubs) on his CV, Laporte has little left to achieve as a coach.
A potential move to the helm of the Fédération Française de Rugby is on the cards next year, meaning he has the potential to become one of the most influential figures in the sport.
Planet Rugby's Ross Hastie caught up with the former French Secretary of State for Sport to talk policies, politics and the state of the game in Toulon, and France, in general.
Planet Rugby: Toulon's recruitment policy isn't always very popular elsewhere, with a steady stream of aging stars brought in over the years to bring the club up from the lower ranks to become champions. We hear prices go up as soon as agents start talking to Toulon these days, is it a sustainable modus operandi?
Bernard Laporte: Yes, prices go up because Toulon has won a lot. We chose charismatic players – guys like Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana or Ali Williams – for a reason. Even if they were reaching the end of their careers, they brought a lot to the club and we won a lot, so now a lot of players want to come to Toulon. Those players paved the way. You know, it's not just Toulon that recruits foreign players. But at Toulon we want charismatic players, because our supporters love their stars. Rugby needs stars.
PR: The criticism from many is focused on the imbalance between players developed at Toulon compared to the imports.
BL: I think there's a paradox there. Yes, we recruit a lot, but I think Toulon is also one of the clubs with the most locally developed players. Xavier Chiocci, Jean-Charles Orioli, Virgile Bruni, Levan Chilachava, Konstantin Mikautadze… a lot of our players come from our club. Our policy is to develop these youngsters, and we do have a good academy.
PR: You're set to step aside during the course of the upcoming season with Diego Dominguez coming in. Explain how that is going to work.
BL: Diego will arrive in December. He'll work with us for five months, and then he'll take my place. So we'll integrate him gradually.
PR: Alongside Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal, you've been an outspoken agent for change in structures of French rugby and you're running for the presidency of the FFR. What is your vision for the future of French rugby?
BL: Professional rugby in France has taken off while amateur rugby has been impoverished. I've seen it. The small clubs have no money, they're dying. All the while, the professional clubs are on the rise. There must be a greater redistribution of resources from the professional world toward the amateur ranks. We have to help revitalise the amateur clubs financially.
PR: The combination of the fixture clashes with the World Cup and Six Nations championship means that international players are going to miss about half of the upcoming Top 14 season. It's mad. What's the solution? Should the league be cut to 12 clubs?
BL: In my opinion there must be fewer clubs in the top tier. No doubt about it. The season is way too long. One has to have the courage to say 'in two years there will be only 12 clubs'. Going from 14 to 12 clubs will gain a whole month in the calendar. We should also get rid of the play-offs – we should just have a final between first and second. That's two more weekend's gained, so six weeks in total. No more clashes.
PR: Some would say the play-offs earn a lot of money.
BL: For who? The people at the league office? For the gravy train?
PR: It's a delicate subject, but the standard of refereeing in the Top 14 has often not been up to standard…
BL: (interrupts) I think the refereeing has made a lot of progress. They're well organised and they're becoming professional. I haven't always agreed with them, but we have to recognise that they are improving. It'll take a few years still, but I think they're on the right track.
PR: Guy Novès is the next coach of the French national team, an unsurprising appointment considering his CV. But the timing of his appointment seems bizarre a few months before the World Cup. Surely the FFR haven't done Philippe Saint-André any favours?
BL: I think it's clumsy. For Toulouse it's better because it's given them a chance to find a new coach. Appointing the coach in mid-season would be difficult for his club. It's awkward, but at least the club has a chance to prepare for the future. But they could have kept the news secret, which they should have done.
PR: What do you think of France's chances at the World Cup?
BL: They do have a chance because they have good players. It's true that they've been playing badly for three years – they've been very inconsistent. But a World Cup is exceptional. Essentially you only need to win three games – the quarter, semi, and final… so anything is possible.
PR: Australia's change in eligibility rules has created an unexpected complication for you with Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau now set to be away during the World Cup.
BL: It's true. At the start, they said they weren't playing for their national team anymore. That said, we can't prevent someone from playing in a World Cup, it's such a great experience. It is up to us to adapt and bring in new players. We're obliged to recruit replacements.
PR: Contracts in Australia have been in the news a lot lately. Will Genia's move to Stade Français is in doubt and it looks like Taqele Naiyaravoro wants to stay at the Waratahs instead of going to Glasgow. There's also speculation about Quade Cooper playing at the Olympics next year. What is the situation with Cooper and James O'Connor.
BL: Quade has signed in Toulon. It's simple, when you sign a contract, you've signed a contract. James O'Connor is coming after the World Cup. He's not in the Wallaby squad, but he's on standby. So he'll come afterwards.
PR: So no chance of them not showing up then?
BL: They've both signed. That's how contracts work, if you don't come, you have to pay.