A French court has sentenced French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte to a two-year suspended term for corruption, less than a year before France hosts the World Cup.
Laporte was convicted after the court ruled he showed favouritism in awarding a shirt sponsor contract for the national side to a close friend, Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier.
Laporte's lawyer said he would appeal. He was banned from holding any rugby post for two years but this is suspended pending the appeal.
He is also vice-chairman of the sport's global governing body World Rugby.
The court deemed Laporte ensured a series of marketing decisions favourable to Altrad - who was given an 18-month suspended sentence - and he benefited from a €180,000 image licensing contract that was never actually carried out.
At the trial's close in September, prosecutors said they were seeking a three-year prison sentence for Laporte, now 58, of which he should serve one behind bars, and the two others on probation.
According to the charges, which his defence said were "trumped up", Laporte carried out illegal influence-peddling and passive corruption, mostly for the benefit of Altrad.
The two men's friendship and business links are at the heart of the case.
It goes back to February 2017 when they signed a deal under which Laporte, head of the FFR, agreed to appear in Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights, in return for €180,000.
But while that sum was indeed paid to Laporte, prosecutors claim that he never actually provided the services he signed up for.
Laporte did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed a €1.8m deal with the businessman making his namesake firm the first-ever sponsor to appear on the French national team's jerseys.
Even now, Altrad's logo features on the shirts thanks to a follow-up deal negotiated by Laporte in 2018 and which prosecutors say bears all the hallmarks of corruption.
Laporte, formerly a highly successful coach who guided France twice to the World Cup semi-finals [in 2003 and 2007], is further accused of intervening with French rugby's federal disciplinary commission.
The commission reduced a fine against an Altrad company to €20,000 - it was originally €70,000 - after a call from Laporte.
While prosecutors see this and several more incidents as proof of illicit favouritism, Laporte himself has claimed there was no "cause-effect relationship".
On the last day of the trial in October, Laporte's lawyer Fanny Colin accused the prosecution of "confirmation bias" by "taking into account only elements backing their original assumptions".
The verdict comes only nine months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France on 8 September, 2023, with matches played in nine stadiums across the country.