By Georgina Robinson of
The All Blacks’ jerseys are sponsored by French company Altrad, whose owner is defending bribery charges in a French court. Photo: STUFF / Kai Schwoerer
The Western Force were the envy of Australian rugby earlier this year when headlines trumpeted a “multimillion-dollar” sponsorship deal with French construction behemoth Altrad.
It was similarly good for NZ Rugby in August 2021 when they signed a six-year deal giving the French company jersey sponsorship rights for the All Blacks, Black Ferns, Māori All Blacks, All Blacks Sevens, Black Ferns Sevens and New Zealand U20 teams.
In the financially stressed post-Covid world, in which Australia’s largest Super Rugby franchise, the Waratahs, had not been able to attract a front-of-jersey deal of sufficient value, the Force’s four-year agreement, including player swaps and regular games in France, appeared a triumph.
Eight months on, there is doubt over whether it will see in a second season, as Mohed Altrad, the eccentric billionaire founder of his eponymous company, awaits judgment on bribery charges.
The Western Force declined to comment on the matter but will be watching with interest when the Paris Criminal Court hands down its verdict in December.
Force chief executive Tony Lewis and general manager of rugby Matt Hodgson travelled to France in August to meet officials from Top 14 club Montpellier Herault, which is owned by Altrad. They were excited to kick off a strategic relationship between the clubs.
The Force are minor bystanders in the story. The case could have larger implications for New Zealand Rugby, which last year signed a six-year, $120 million deal with Altrad, also with player agreements and fixtures in Montpellier thrown in.
It also threatens the reputation and legacy of Bernard Laporte, the vice chairman of World Rugby, a Sanzaar ally and, according to Rugby World magazine, the most influential figure in the sport this year. Laporte stood trial for a range of corruption charges, including bribery, breach of trust, misuse of corporate assets and concealment of that misuse. Both men denied all charges.
Mohed Altrad, the president and owner of Montpellier rugby. Photo: SYLVAIN THOMAS / AFP
At the centre of the case is the close and longstanding relationship between Laporte and Altrad, a colourful figure who claims to have risen from the Bedouins of Syria to become an industry titan. The Altrad Group bought Australian construction and maintenance group Valmec last year and employs more than 2000 Australians, a transaction that appeared to have opened the door for the Force.
According to French, English and Irish reporting, prosecutors built their case around an alleged “corruption pact” in which Altrad agreed a €180,000 image rights deal with Laporte in 2017.
The former France coach and FFR president then pressured the Top 14’s appeals panel to drop sanctions against Altrad’s club, Montpellier, for the display of some protest banners at the club’s Altrad Stadium. Laporte’s intervention led to the resignations of seven panel members, it was reported.
Later that year, Altrad was confirmed as the first front-of-jersey sponsor of the French national team in a deal worth a reported $60 million. Laporte pulled out of the image rights deal after it was revealed in the media.
Both men strenuously denied the allegations, their defence lawyers claiming the case was a witch hunt designed to bring down two great contributors to French rugby.
Three other men were caught in the probe and also faced trial, including Claude Atcher, the former head of the 2023 Rugby World Cup Ltd, the organising corporation for next year’s tournament. Atcher was suspended from his post after a separate probe into workplace culture and financial impropriety. On Wednesday, he was sacked.
Neither the Force nor New Zealand Rugby had any involvement in the activities in question in the criminal case, but their sponsorship arrangements will come under scrutiny if the charges against Altrad, in particular, are affirmed in December.
NZR’s deal was controversial at the time as it was coupled with a similar arrangement with British petrochemicals giant Ineos. Greenpeace accused the union of participating in “greenwashing”.
NZR declined to comment on the case or speculate on its implications. A spokeswoman said a move to the Montpellier club last month by All Blacks prop Karl Tu’inukuafe was “entirely unrelated” to the deal.
French Rugby Federation chief Bernard Laporte. Photo: THOMAS SAMSON / AFP
There could be further ripples for the Australian and New Zealand unions if Laporte is found guilty. The influential figure, who also served as sports minister in the government of former France president Nicolas Sarkozy, has been a close ally of the Sanzaar nations, particularly Australia and New Zealand.
He could come under great pressure to relinquish his position at World Rugby’s top table. World Rugby and Sanzaar insiders fear a power vacuum in that instance, which could be filled by an official who favours the Six Nations teams, tilting the balance of power further away from Australia and New Zealand.
The case has also cast a pall over the reputation of the French national union less than a year out from the World Cup. The tournament is set to be a cash bonanza for World Rugby and one of the tightest in history on the field, with the host nation ranked No.2 in the world and on track for a triumph at the Stade de France next November.
But the FFR’s critics will not forget the union effectively stole the tournament from South Africa, which had been named as World Rugby’s preferred bidder, and Ireland, which came third in the voting in November 2017.
A furious period of negotiation and horse-trading eventually won France the tournament under the most surprising of circumstances. Laporte, Altrad and Atcher were the driving forces behind that coup.
*This story originally appeared on Stuff.
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