French rugby league is enjoying something of a renaissance in these unusual times, and the French Federation’s new president, Luc Lacoste, is determined to build on the momentum.
Live streams from the French Elite Championship has been virtually the only rugby league to watch over the winter months, raising awareness of it in the UK perhaps to levels we’ve never seen before.
The key now is to build on it, and Lacoste has a plan to do that.
Opening up rugby league in France
The appointment of Laurent Frayssinous and Trent Robinson to the France national team shows how serious they are about the World Cup and “Club France” beyond 2021, while plans to expand the Elite Championship to 12 teams are also being worked on.
“We want to open up. Our history is the biggest story in rugby league. We’re still very nearby to Carcassonne and Perpignan, if we want to grow we have to open up to new areas, not just in France but all over Europe.
“With the arrival of Laurent (Frayssinous) and Trent (Robinson) as rugby director, that clearly shows my volition to open up and show that France is back!
“We need to become more professional in everything. With the players, with our competitions, but also with the media. We are now very close to TV, and that’s something we need to get a bigger audience. We continue to try to find new possibilities to show rugby league in France on the TV.”
Broadcasting and becoming more professional
The French Elite Championship has been streaming games via YouTube and Facebook in recent months, with a handful of games being show on local TV station viaOccitanie.
“We clearly have to continue to show French rugby league in England and in Australia, but as we want to grow, we want to preserve our commercial rights, so we need to be prudent.
“As we become more professional, the value of these rights increase it. The clubs are currently doing it themselves, and I believe if we want to move forward, we need to showcase a good production of our Championship. Some games don’t have interview backdrops, or don’t show the score or the time.
“I want to help French rugby league become professional, so I need to have control of the league’s rights.
“Our Championship is getting better and better each day, but so is every other championship, so we need to keep growing.”
As with most leagues in professional and semi-professional sport, there are many differences between the clubs within it. Top clubs like Carcassonne and Lezignan have budgets that aren’t too far away from those in the English Championship, while Toulouse and St Esteve benefit from being the reserve sides of Olympique’s Championship side and Catalans Dragons.
“I think the clubs understand that we need to become more professional. I believe they understand they cannot continue in their own little area and that the federation is there to help them grow.
“The federation is there to organise the competition, not to organise the clubs, so if the competition is organised and everybody just does what they want, then we won’t have a big championship and I believe they have understood that.
“They want to believe in a better future for themselves and if we all work together, it helps each other.”
The four areas of focus
There are four pillars that Lacoste is focusing on, and these are also being used to assess the applications being made to expand the Elite 1 Championship to 12 clubs – finances, sporting strength (playing squad and player pool), infrastructure (ie. stadium and facilities) and marketing.
Another interesting proposal is that clubs will only be able to spend up to 60% of their wage bill on players – ensuring that clubs invest in the appropriate backroom staff in the administration, financial and marketing departments.
The top clubs – Lezignan, St Esteve and Carcassonne – run off a budget of around €700,000 (£600,000), with mid-range clubs like Villeneuve, Albi and Limoux around the €450,000 mark. The lowest budget ahead of the 2020/21 season was estimated to be Palau’s €200,000.
“I understand from the short term point of view why you want to spend 90% of your wages on players – but if you want long-term success, you need to consider that clubs have to be well structured in other areas. And I believe the clubs agree.
“We won’t promote two new teams if it is too difficult for those clubs to step up to Elite 1. I don’t want to kill them. If they don’t have the finances, good infrastructure, not enough marketing, I will say no.
“So maybe next year we will still have 10 clubs. I don’t want them to take risks. They know we want to progress.”
Several clubs have requested the details of the required criteria, and a FFR commission will decide what to do when the applications have been received.
Creating big rugby league events in France
The increased interest in the Elite Championship may well open up the possibility of more English fans taking in a game in France.
But there appears to be a significant opportunity to turn either the Elite Grand Finals Day or the Lord Derby Cup final to one of Europe’s most attractive rugby league events.
Held in June, it would be the perfect time to tie in rugby league with a summer holiday.
Unfortunately, COVID is likely to prevent anything like that happening in 2021, but Lacoste is certainly keen to explore it from 2022 and beyond.
“The final event is very important. We have already identified what we want our final event to look like – a weekend with all the finals, including female, wheelchair, Elite 2 and Elite 1; a big rugby league feast in a big stadium.
“We’re looking at maybe Toulouse, or Bordeaux, or Marseille. Clearly they could become big events for us each year if we do them well, and I do believe English people and people from all over would come.
“We need events every three months. And with the weekly matches, we also need to consider the matchday experience; what happens before, during and after a match.”
Expansion and a return to Paris
While any expansion to the top division will come from the Elite 2 Championship for 2021/22, Lacoste is keen to open the sport up to other areas.
A recent report linked Spanish side Valencia Huracanes with interest in joining the league, but he says there’s plenty of work to do in France – particularly in bridging the gap between the rugby league heartlands of southern France and northern England.
Lacoste, who is based in Paris, is also keen to see a return to the capital city, which of course had a Super League side when it was founded in 1996.
“Because we have a lot of clubs in south of France, then maybe if we can find some clubs nearby in Spain like in the Occitanie and Catalonia regions, but it may be too early for that.
“We want to look at the north of France, because of Paris, the Ille de France region and new clubs by Nantes; the driver for that pushes us nearby our friends in England.
“I live in Paris and with the population and sponsors, we have a lot of scope to develop a lot of clubs. It’s easier to build a strategy around Paris.
“In Paris and any other northern region we have to build as fast as possible a professional team; but we do not want to forget that we need the foundations, so going back to the schools, colleges, universities and create the bases.
“30 years ago when PSG were in Super League, they had enormous ambition and went in directly at the top, but they forgot about the foundations.
“We are trying to create a regional structure in Paris, as well as other areas; having those regional areas is crucial as they will lead talks with the local authorities over stadia and of course are closer to companies and potential sponsors. When I, and the federation, are based in Paris it makes sense.”
Lacoste’s love for rugby league
Lacoste, 54, hails from Bordeaux but has lived in Paris for 25 years. He spent four years as a student in London and also worked in Toulouse. His main business was as chief executive of a car parts company, which was sold in 2008, and he has since focused on investment works.
After deciding to run for president of the FFR, his so-called “Perspectives XIII” group won 23 out of 24 possible seats during the elections in December.
His link with rugby league came, ironically, when he was on the board – and also interim president – at USAP, Perpignan’s rugby union side, before leaving them in 2017.
“I went to the Dragons to see a match and I had two main reactions – first of all, when I saw them playing I said ‘wow, what’s that sport?!’ because I didn’t know. In France, you know union and not rugby league; what a beautiful game.
“My second was it’s very bizarre how a guy like me, who loves every sport – cycling, tennis, golf, F1 – and I’ve never seen rugby league and I asked how a sport like this is not known in France, why does the TV not show it, where are there no big cities involved, because the sport is sensational.
“So I said I will try to help, because it’s a really brilliant sport. I was always asking why the media does not want rugby league. But all I heard was ‘well they don’t want us’, not us showing them why they should show interest. If we want the media to show our sport, ew need to adapt to them. If we are not able to enter their minds, we need to speak about our pitch, pitch it in front of the authorities, in front of the media, in front of companies, create events and then they will see us.
France on the international scene
One of Lacoste’s first calls was to try and secure a mid-season international for France against England. Unfortunately, England had already agreed to the test match against the newly re-branded Combined Nations All Stars in June.
They are in England’s group for the World Cup, kicking off the tournament against Greece at the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster on October 25.
France then face England in Bolton on October 30, before rounding the group stages off against Samoa at Warrington on November 7.
At the last World Cup, in 2017, they lost all three of their group matches – although they have fared better the last two times the tournament has been held in the northern hemisphere, reaching the quarter-finals in both 2000 and 2013.
“We have an enormous chance to show now what rugby league is in France. That’s why I said we need new staff to work every day on the World Cup. I need great guys to help us showcase rugby league in France. To have Trent opens us up to help from Australia.
“It’s important for us. If we want to grow, we need to play against big nations. We need to show England that we can be of interest to play against.
“I think Ralph (Rimmer, RFL CEO) knows our ambition and he knows it is good for the northern hemisphere to have a real competitor, and I do believe he will try and help us.
“We have an international audience because of Catalans and Toulouse. I have a good relationship with them and I think they understand that if French rugby league grows, it’s good for them – even if they play in England.
“For economic reasons, they need to have good French players in their team and those French players come from our federation, our Elite 1 clubs.”
Future paths for French clubs
The prospect of more French teams joining the RFL Championship appears unlikely, at least in the short-term, especially because of the economic issues and logistical challenges created by Brexit.
If Toulouse were to gain promotion to Super League, perhaps the Championship route may well come to an end; especially if the Elite Championship can improve.
On that note, Lacoste admits that they are considering whether the competition needs its own brand and identity, similar to Super League and the NRL.
“Super League and Championship is a higher level than Elite – does that mean that will continue to be the case for the next 10-15 years? Who knows. The major issue with more teams playing in England is the economics – and now as England is not in EU anymore, not as easy!”
For now, as with most industries, the French rugby league must wait for the end of the coronavirus restrictions before it can embark on its new path.
Their growth, both in terms of their domestic competition and as a force on the international stage – particularly in providing regular, competitive opposition for England – could be the key to shaping the sport’s future.