French Rugby League has definitely got momentum but it should walk before it tries to run.
Rugby League World Cup in France?
The momentum that French Rugby League is building continues to grow. With Trent Robinson on board as director of rugby and Laurent Frayssinous as head coach, the professionalisation of the French Rugby League continues apace.
What was of more interest was the announcement that the International Rugby League Board are looking to take the Rugby League World Cup to France in 2025.
On the face of it, this can only be good news. Finally, the Paul Barrière Trophy will be held aloft by a lucky team for the first time this millennium. For the FFR, they have a tournament that can fill stadiums across the south of France and potentially give the game the audience and commercial explosion it needs. The infrastructure is certainly there, with stadiums from Toulouse to Marseille offering the right size to sell out and have a month long celebration.
Maybe it’s the lack of ability to get to much live sport but the idea of France opening up a Rugby League World Cup in Toulouse, followed by group stage sell-outs in Montpellier, Avignon and Perpignan before a final in Marseille is certainly a mouth watering prospect.
There is also a proven audience for French games versus bigger sides, with France getting near enough 15,000 in Avignon when they played England back in 2016. However, are we not trying to get French Rugby League to bite off more than it can chew at this stage?
The history of streets in Marseille lined for the French Rugby League Australian Tour heroes of 1951 are wonderful but that is ancient history. France has changed massively in those 70 years and we are living in a different world. Besides, there are plenty of milestones that French Rugby League needs to hit before we should consider taking the World Cup there.
As we mentioned before, these include turning the Elite Final and the Lord Derby Cup into set-piece events that can sell out a 12000 capacity stadium.
At a minimum for the national side, we need France to be having an annual game against England in France every year and filling a 15-20,000 stadium. Crucially, Elite 1 needs to get to a stage of development where it reaches 12 teams that include a thriving team in Montpellier and, if we are being aggressive, a reinvigorated Lyon Villeurbanne. This is ambitious but possible to achieve by 2029. I’d be amazed if this is the case by 2025.
We are nearly 50 years on from Great Britain’s World Cup win against Australia. Sadly, what is often forgotten is that the game was played in front of less than 5,000 in Lyon, as the French decided they had no interest in watching a final they weren’t in. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the French team would get out of a group in 2025, let alone a final. Rugby league cannot afford a repeat of that empty stadium of 1972.
By targeting 2029, the benefits are clear. It gives French Rugby League time and a clear focus for the growth of the game whilst allowing us to all work to make it a success in eight years. Yes to growth and yes to ambition but I fear 2025 is one cycle too soon.
Goodbye Oceanic Cup?
Speaking of International Rugby League, the announcement of the end of the mid season international fixture was snuck out by Tony Grant alongside the targeted French World Cup. Clearly this has been done to appease the NRL and Australia, a fact made clear when it was suggested that New Zealand replace the Kangaroos for a 2022 test series versus England.
Sadly this could mean the end of a tournament that had given International Rugby League legs in the southern hemisphere, that of the Oceanic Cup.
In the mythical world of pre Covid, the other southern hemisphere nations played internationals in mid-season whilst Aussies got stuck into the State of Origin. Then, once the end of the season rolled around, Australia would join and it had created a very good tournament where the Pacific Island nations got regular internationals and also gave us Tonga’s memorable win over Australia in 2019.
If regular Australia and New Zealand tours are to be set up to play in Europe (which they should) then nations such as Tonga and Fiji could be left out in the cold.
Post World Cup, the RFL and FFR need to be brave enough to state that just because Australia don’t want a mid-season fixture there’s no reason why the rest of us shouldn’t be playing one. In 2019, the State of Origin Game 2 was a free week in the NRL calendar, which is when Round 1 of the Oceanic Cup was played.
If the Oceanic Cup is no more (in June or July), then the second the fixtures are announced for 2022, England and France should be publicly declaring they want to play Tonga or Fiji in a mid-season international.
Already people will be saying that the NRL will refuse to release players but if that’s the case, let’s force them to say that in the open rather than meekly accept it. That way the RFL can come out and say “Australian Rugby League is actively blocking the growth of International Rugby League” so pressure is put on the NRL to do right by the sport. Whatever it takes. Were the RFL to be successful in getting a game on, we can guarantee England have five regular internationals a year (Pacific team, France and either Australia or New Zealand tour). Now that’s an international calendar worth getting behind.
Luc Lacoste – Get well soon
A brief and sad note on the man who has been doing so much to lead this new energy in French Rugby League. Recently Luc Lacoste suffered a heart attack. All of us here at Love Rugby League and the wider rugby league community wish him a safe and speedy recovery.