French Elite Championship set for revamp as nation moves towards professional top flight with hopes of putting sport back on the map

James Gordon
French Elite Championship badge, France flag, Albi badge, Avignon badge, Carcassonne badge, Lezignan badge, Limouxin badge, Pia badge, Saint Esteve XIII Catalan badge, St Gaudens badge, Toulouse Elite badge, Villeneuve badge, Stade Albert Domac in background

The French Elite Championship is set for a revamp with a move towards a professional top flight across the Channel

French rugby league is planning to re-brand its elite competition as part of a move to professionalise the sport across the Channel.

The French Elite Championship has grown in profile in recent years, thanks to a number of players moving from Super League to play in France over the winter months.

The accessibility of games via live streaming, particularly during COVID, captured the attention of English fans, as has the continued progress of Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique in the British professional pyramid, with both clubs featuring in Super League in 2022.

Now former French Federation president Luc Lacoste has set out ambitious plans to revitalise the game in France, and his successor Dominique Baloup is moving in the same vein.

French Elite Championship set for revamp as nation moves towards professional top flight with hopes of putting sport back on the map

French rugby league has been licking its wounds for the past six months since the difficult decision was made to withdraw from hosting the 2025 World Cup, which had planned to be a significant step in the country’s growth plans.

However, funding cuts by the French government left them no alternative but to pull out of hosting the tournament, which will instead go ahead in the Southern Hemisphere in 2026.

It has created further awareness of the commercial reality facing French rugby league and how they must move forwards towards professionalism by generating their own revenues.

Stade Toulousain lift the 'Top 14' rugby union title
Stade Toulousain lift the 2022/23 ‘Top 14’ French rugby union title – Alamy

Part of that process appears to be a new-look flagship competition, branded ‘Top 13’ – not too dissimilar to the ‘Top 14’, France’s elite rugby union competition.

Information was revealed about the plans in an interview about the Federation’s decision to celebrate 90 years since its foundation in April.

Earlier this week, Baloup was quoted in the local press as saying: “We are working on this concept of the ‘Top 13’ which will bring together, to start with, 12 teams.

“Going to 13 is a project with teams that are not just those we currently know in Elite 1. What I can say is that this competition will be offered to the French in September 2024.”

He has since clarified in a statement via the French Federation website: “There is no question of starting in September 2024 any professional activity, other than that which already partially exists.

“The change mentioned at the start of next season is the arrival of the ‘Top 13’ which will revamp our championship.”

How the French Elite Championship currently sits

The French Elite Championship comprises of clubs with a variety of budgets. The budget of the top teams, like Carcassonne and Lezignan, stands up to those in the English RFL Championship with the exception of the top few.

French news outlet Treize Mondial reported that Carcassonne’s budget was in the region of €900,000 (approx £750k), ahead of St Esteve (€600,000), Lezignan (€500,000), Limoux (€450,000) and St Gaudens (€450,000).

Most of the players are part-time, with clubs permitted to take three overseas players.

Kevin Proctor
Kevin Proctor will be a Carcassone player for the second half of the 2023/24 French Elite Championship season – Alamy

Carcassonne have appeared in six of the last eight Grand Finals, although only won it once – beating Limoux, the current reigning champions, in 2022.

The current season is comprised of 10 teams, including the respective reserve sides of Catalans and Toulouse, as well as Albi, Avignon, Pia and Villeneuve.

As previously reported by Love Rugby League, there has been interest from clubs outside the current top flight to join, in places like Lyon and Toulon, and officials are understandably keen to forge presence once again in Paris, which of course hosted Super League in its early years.

Talks to expand the French Elite Championship to 14 teams were discussed in 2016, but never came to fruition.

Carcassonne recently hinted at possible inclusion in to the RFL pyramid, wanting to follow the path of Toulouse by joining League 1 come 2026, though there hasn’t been any official discussions about this happening.

Driving professionalism off the pitch and moving to new areas

In his statement on the French Federation’s website, Baloup also revealed the strategy to which he wants to drive the competition to become professional.

That included improving managerial, commercial and communication skills at clubs; building a viable and sustainable financial model and engaging with local authorities to improve facilities.

A key point was to try and re-establish rugby league in new territories, particularly cities, as well as increasing broadcast coverage.

France will host an international match against England in Toulouse on June 29, a month after its domestic competition Grand Finals day will be held in Narbonne on May 25.

Anthony Marion England v France Alamy
France are set to host England in a mid-season test in 2024 – Alamy

As a result of the decision to broadcast all Super League games in 2024, all Catalans Dragons games home and away will be broadcast live by L’Equipe, with talks ongoing with TV3 which would see Dragons games broadcast across Catalonia.

The Dragons’ pre-season clash against a French President’s XIII this afternoon (February 3) will also be broadcast live on TV.

Dragons director Christophe Levy told news outlet L’Independant: “For us, it is extraordinary to have all our matches live in the United Kingdom, France and perhaps Catalonia.

“This has never happened since we have been in this competition and the visibility will undoubtedly be increased in 2024.”

Opinion: It’s unlucky for some, but rugby league should always make the most out of 13

One of the unique elements of rugby league is the number of players – 13. This is one of the main points of difference to rugby union. The game could, and perhaps should, lean on it more.

I’ve often thought that 13 might well be a good number for the English game to go down in terms of league structure. 13 teams in each of the three professional divisions – you could even try and enforce it in the community game too.

Sure, it hampers Magic Weekend (overrated), but it provides the ability to structure the schedule to balance player welfare requirements – if you’re away in France, maybe the following week you don’t play; or if you are playing in the Thursday night game, you don’t play the previous week.

It creates the freedom for the World Club Challenge to fit in without hampering a league round.

With Super League as a name getting continually lost in the sphere of sports fans due to the explosion of women’s football, maybe leaning on 13 wouldn’t be a bad way to go about things.

READ NEXT: Structure headache outside Super League rages on ahead of RFL Championship season opener as clubs push for solution