Peters & Peters

Fraud, bribery and corruption in sport – will rugby take the mantle in 2023?

Fraud, bribery and corruption (FBC) in sport are nothing new. INTERPOL notes that criminal offences in sport “are a way for organized syndicates to generate high profits and launder their illegal proceeds, with limited risk of detection”.

In recent times, the spotlight has been on sports with circular balls, with a host of scandals rocking the football and cricket worlds (including, for football, the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, the 2015 FIFA corruption case, the Lionel Messi 2017 tax fraud case, and the 2011 cricket spot-fixing scandal). However, with the events that unfolded in France surrounding Bernard Laporte towards the end of 2022, and with 2023 being a men’s Rugby World Cup year, could 2023 be the year in which rugby finally becomes embroiled in its own FBC scandals?

Rugby’s recent scandals – breaching and folding

In recent years, the sport Oscar Wilde described as a “game for barbarians played by gentlemen” has not been without controversy and, in the last decade, a pattern has emerged of the steady increase in the influence of money over rugby.

Breaching: Saracens RFC salary cap breaches (2016-2019)

In January 2020, Lord Dyson’s report exposed Saracens’ (one of England’s most successful clubs in the last decade) multiple breaches of the salary cap in the Gallagher Premiership (England’s top flight). The salary cap is designed to “ensure financial viability of clubs” and “provide a level playing field for clubs”. The breaches were seen as anti-competitive, and many viewed it as an indication of the negative influence of money on rugby. 

Yet the scandal resulted in exclusively regulatory penalties. Saracens were relegated to the Championship, board members resigned and the club received a fine of £5.4 million.

Folding: The collapse of Worcester Warriors and Wasps (2022)

At the end of 2022, the Gallagher Premiership saw the two clubs fold. In January 2023, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report, critical of the lack of financial oversight from Premiership Rugby, and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal sanctioned Worcester’s co-owner and former legal trainee Colin Goldring. In Worcester’s case, the report criticises how “unscrupulous owners [had] mismanaged club finances while attempting to strip the club of its assets”. The full extent of mismanagement remains to be seen, and the true nature of the demise of both clubs and is certainly something to watch with interest over the next 12 months.

Bernard Laporte, France and the Rugby World Cup 2023

When Bernard Laporte left RC Toulonnais in 2016, he went from being an influential coach, to being one of Rugby’s most influential names. First, he assumed office as President of the French Rugby Federation in December 2016, and then, in May 2020, he became vice-president of World Rugby, the world-governing body of rugby union.

In December 2022, Laporte was convicted of corruption in relation to acts in 2017. He was convicted of interfering with a disciplinary investigation into Montpellier Hérault Rugby (owned by his close friend Mohed Altrad), and attempting to reduce a fine against the club from €70,000 to €20,000. Laporte was also alleged to have shown favouritism in the awarding of a sponsorship deal to Altrad in March 2017, with Laporte being paid €180,000 in February 2017 by Altrad for services it is alleged he never provided. Laporte received a two-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of €75,000. (Laporte is currently appealing his conviction.)

France will host the men’s Rugby World Cup in September and October this year. In 2017, France beat Ireland and South Africa to host the tournament, despite World Rugby recommending South Africa’s bid. Brett Gosper, chief executive of World Rugby, provided his view on the selection of France: “Ireland and South Africa both put forward a £270m potential surplus and with France, we are sitting on a potential £350m surplus [from this tournament]”. The controversial awarding of the World Cup to France was seen by many as the prioritisation of greater financial revenue, rather than fan experience or growth of the sport.

In November 2022, the Parquet national financier (PNF), the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (the French equivalent of the Serious Fraud Office) raided the offices of GIP France 2023 (the organising committee of the 2023 Rugby World Cup). As a result of the raid, the PNF confirmed that it had opened a preliminary investigation into charges of “favouritism, influence peddling, corruption and any other related offence relating to the management of GIP France 2023”.

Towards an increase of FBC cases?

With several inquiries and investigations ongoing, Rugby is sadly now a space to watch with great interest to see how allegations of FBC develop and emerge in 2023 in the run up to the World Cup.

This article was first published in the YFLA winter newsletter and is reproduced with permission.