This weekend could be one of the most important in rugby union history. Believe it or not, that’s not an understatement.
Come Sunday evening, we could see a sacred French team in the Super League
The Catalans Dragons, who finished first in the regular season standings, will face defending champions St Helens in Manchester for the Super League title, while back in France, Toulouse Olympique XIII will face Featherstone Rovers for the Grand Final of the Championship.
It’s not a flash in the pan, nor even so unexpected: the Catalans have been in the Super League since 2006 and won the Challenge Cup in 2018 and Toulouse are undefeated so far this season, all the more impressive to have played his entire campaign on the road in England.
Whatever the results of this weekend, the success of both clubs is seen as a defining moment in the sport, with the long-dormant fourth power in the rugby league – behind Australia, New Zealand and the ‘England – perhaps waking up from decades of sleep.
“There is every chance that this could raise the level of the French rugby league, because we have a team from France that can play at the level of the Grand Final,” said Bernard Sarrazain, CEO of Toulouse Olympique. “The second thing is that these two teams are the suppliers of the France team.”
France has competed in every World Cup, but has not contested seriously since the 1980s. While domestic competition has never faltered, they lacked avenues to full-time professional play at a time when the Australian game got overworked and the British game, while remaining behind the southern hemisphere, left France in the dust.
However, with the addition of the Catalans Dragons in the Super League in 2006, followed by Toulouse in 2015, the way is now clear for the players. It’s not free. France are set to host the 2025 Rugby Union World Cup, which could see them field their most competitive team since they were last hosted in 1972.
It is not an expansion: it is a fruition. The expansion is going where you have never been, but rugby union has been around in France since the 1930s, and to say that Toulouse or the Catalan Dragons represent expansionism is to ignore those who, perhaps above all, rugby union people, fought the most difficult to play.
The French rugby league was born in the same way as the rugby league in most places: through accusations of professionalism brought by the authorities of the rugby federations.
Similar to the original 1895 breakaway in England, or the game’s founding in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1900s, French players were accused of being paid to play in the early 1930s. and were excluded from the Five Nations Championship by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Using the cast iron rugby league logic of “if you’re going to accuse me of getting paid to play, I might as well get paid”, a significant portion of the game’s elite players have moved on to the league. rugby. In five years there were an almost equal number of league and union clubs in France, and the national team were good enough to have beaten the English in England, something their rugby union counterparts never had. made.
The advent of World War II, however, put an end to it all. When France was conquered by the Germans, the collaborationist Nazi regime in Vichy, helped by some rugby union leaders in its ranks, notably the Minister of Sports and former international union Joseph Pascot, had the league banned and its assets seized. . Even the name “rugby” would be taken from the league, the sport being renamed “game of thirteen”.
This story is known to almost every rugby union fan in France and perhaps explains just how willing their clubs are to work together to keep the fire going. Solidarity is a virtue.
On the business side, Sarrazain explains that they are thinking of working together, even if it is too early to talk about it concretely before they qualify for the Super League. He describes their relationship as a “perfect match”.
That said, Toulouse would need to improve commercially to compete at a higher level. “Even though we had a bigger budget compared to the English teams in the championship, we were falling behind in the Super League. We need to double the budget to about $ 7 million. “
“We hope to have more spectators when we are in the Super League and thus earn more money by selling more tickets. Then the TV rights will be added to that. Although the first few months are going to be a bit complicated, we hope that there will be some calm in our budget.
Perhaps this is where Toulouse has a unique selling point to the rugby league: perhaps alone among the clubs in the northern hemisphere, they come from a wealthy region and have access to top sponsors. order. The local aerospace industry, in particular, has supported them in the past.
Perhaps even more unique, they work in cooperation with their local rugby union club, with whom they share a stadium. If they won a promotion, they would be in a good position to compete financially with the rest of the league.
The Catalan Dragons, based in the decidedly proletarian city of Perpignan, have never had the same opportunities, but bring a different angle. They have always ostensibly represented an entire region rather than a single city, and have played matches as far south as Barcelona.
It’s hard to remember a time when their main sponsor wasn’t the area itself or its tourist board, and they managed to arm their location and culture for their purposes.
They’ve brought together elite talent from the UK and Australia, drawn to the allure of beachside living in the south of France, and combined that with a marketing message that appeals to all fans of the rugby league in France beyond those of Perpignan.
If Toulouse join them in the top flight, their derbies against each other – they are about 100 miles apart – will be meetings. A televised deal with French broadcasters, now able to broadcast a Super League match live from France every weekend, will surely follow.
While the Catalans winning the competition would be a landmark day for ‘the forbidden game’, as Mike Rylance’s French rugby league story called it, the biggest story could yet be in Toulouse.
Having a really good team is good, but having two good teams in the elite competition could be transcendent for the rugby league in France. After this weekend, that could be reality.