French ‘derby’ in Super League would be massive for the game, says Mark Kheirallah

Sebastian Sternik

When Mark Kheirallah first signed for Toulouse Olympique in 2012, the player wasn’t even entirely keen on learning the French language as he only expected to be there for a year.

Almost a decade later, the full back is still living in the south of France, leading Toulouse’s long-standing ambition to reach Super League, and he’s still loving it.

“My lifestyle here is just unbelievable,” said the 30-year-old.

“It allows me to do what I love and that’s to play rugby league. I don’t have many other stresses to be fair. I also met my partner here. I’m a bit of a travel bug and Europe is only a stone’s throw away.

“The people at the club have been a big reason why I’ve stayed, and the style of football that we play as well. It just ticks a lot of boxes personally and what I’m about, my personality and how I carry myself. That’s why I keep coming back every year.”

His close relationship with head coach Sylvain Houles has also been a big reason why Kheirallah has stayed so long with the club.

Sylvain Houles has been at Toulouse since 2007, first as a player and then as head coach since 2012. (Photo: Anthony Monod)

He said: “We’ve been together now for a long time. We’ve developed with each other. He loves his rugby league. That’s something we have in common. We love playing, we love talking about it.

“We spent hours, him and myself. We talk footy and we’re both hard golfers so we have a few things in common that we share and we’re both very competitive. He’s a good bloke, real down to earth and he just loves it. Those are the kind of people I like to hang around with.

“He took over as our coach when we were in the French comp. When you spend so much time with someone you want to hope that you like them.”

Toulouse’s aim of reaching Super League has been somewhat disturbed by the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, the clubs long-term ambition remains playing in the top tier.

Should the French club achieve promotion, a new derby will emerge in the Super League between Toulouse and Catalans Dragons. Kheirallah believes this would be huge for the game.

He said: “I think it would be massive. We already have this slight rivalry, we played each other a couple of times over the years.

“It always ends up being a big game and everyone turns up for it, the boys all rip in and it’s a bit of a grind.

“I think if we were both in the Super League, it will get a lot more publicity and it will be a massive, massive day.

“There’s so many supporters here – in Toulouse especially – that just can’t wait to see us up there. The French love their rugby league, especially down in the south. I think having two teams fight for potential Premiership in the Super League would mean the world to them.”

Promotion to the Super League for Toulouse would see a team from yet another large international city joining the competition. When asked about the sport expanding Kheirallah believes that internationalism can only improve the strength of the league.

Toulouse beat Toronto 46-16 in front of more than 6,000 fans at Stade Ernest Wallon in 2019.

He said: “I don’t believe it can hurt. The more ‘bigger’ cities you can get involved, the better it will be.

“When we went to Toronto, there were almost 10,000 people that came to support bang smack in the city centre.

“The rise that they had and the support that they had, if more teams can replicate that, I believe it will just make the competition stronger.”