Rugby: A French secret agent?

By Gregor Paul

Byron Kelleher still serves Toulouse but has been recruiting for Bayonne. Photo / Getty Images
Byron Kelleher still serves Toulouse but has been recruiting for Bayonne. Photo / Getty Images

The volatility of French rugby has been felt in New Zealand this week with a recruitment drive led by Byron Kelleher earning the wrath of agents.

Former All Black Kelleher, a Toulouse player until June, is understood to have talked to Neemia Tialata and Sitiveni Sivivatu, among others, in the past few weeks about joining him at Bayonne after the World Cup.

A former team-mate talking to his friends about the merits of a particular club is normal. But it is now possible that French officials will investigate whether Kelleher furnished players in New Zealand with written contract offers.

Kelleher is not a licensed French agent - a requirement for anyone buying and selling players in France. A breach of these laws could have serious consequences.

But it appears that Kelleher has been more naive than disreputable and may have been caught in a power struggle for control of the Bayonne club featuring former France national coach Bernard Laporte.

Initial inquiries by New Zealand agents of the players approached by Kelleher via Facebook and email, say they don't believe formal offers were made. It is believed, though, that remuneration was discussed as were other big picture elements of what the club was offering.

The greatest source of concern for the New Zealand rugby fraternity is Kelleher's alleged desire for the players to strike deals without the knowledge or blessing of their respective management.

One of the players Kelleher contacted says he was put under pressure to keep his agent in the dark. When he asked why, he says Kelleher told him that would result in an extra commission having to be paid to the New Zealand agent - which would lessen the value of the deal to the individual.

Uncertain about the legality and morality of such a deal, the player told his agent what had happened. Sivivatu reported a similar story to his agent and given assurances that he didn't sign anything.

Kelleher did not respond to an email request asking him to comment, but last night there were alleged developments at Bayonne that may provide answers on several matters which agents here were seeking clarity.

One offshore New Zealand player of pedigree is believed to have signed with Bayonne after holding initial discussions with Kelleher. But the president of Bayonne, Francis Salagoity, is alleged to have referred to the contract as fraudulent, claiming he knew nothing of it before it was signed.

That caused significant alarm as it raised suspicion Kelleher had been the one to make the offer without endorsement from the club.

But agents here now believe Kelleher was instructed to contact his former team-mates by Laporte, the current French Minister of Sport, who joined Bayonne in November last year.

Laporte's portfolio extends to recruitment and he's known to be determined to build the club into a major force. Agents here, who have been trying to find out what has been going on at Bayonne, say they now believe Laporte has given the shareholders an ultimatum - to oust Salagoity and put the former national coach in charge.

It is believed, too, that the club's major sponsor will walk away unless Laporte is given control.

Agents here say Bayonne has been a difficult club to do business with in recent times which has prevented the club from hiring some big names.

There is also talk that former Springbok coach Jake White is in line to take over as coach at Bayonne and it is believed that deal could be contingent on Laporte being in direct control.

If this activity and subterfuge had involved a different cast, there might have been deeper surprise. Yet those who deal regularly with the French say there are still some clubs with an unorthodox approach, which increases the need for players to be ultra-careful.

"France is a lot different to any other place," says former All Black Craig Innes who runs agency World in Motion and specialises in the overseas market. "There are a lot of complications around taxation and other aspects of contracts that have to be water-tight and written by people who understand the market and the law."

Kelleher, 34, is believed to have signed a five-year deal with Bayonne where he will play for three years then operate in a recruitment and mentoring capacity after he retires.

- Herald on Sunday

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