French Rugby League – Forbidden No Longer

Edward Anderson

Edward Anderson takes a look into the world of French Rugby League. A game that despite Vichy and Covid, continues to survive.

With Europe working its way through yet another wave of Covid, it is incredible that French rugby league continues and Elite 1 has reached the halfway stage. However, for those aware of the history of The Greatest Game in France, fighting for survival is in the very soul of French rugby league.

The Forbidden Game

It may seem extraordinary today but there was a time when rugby league was on its way to being the dominant rugby code in France.

The French XIII was playing internationals vs England whilst their union counterparts were banned from the home nations.

Pre-WWII club tours from teams such as Salford Red Devils (the name Red Devils coming from the match programme that nicknamed Salford ‘Les Diables Rouges de Salford’) found financial success in 1934.

Rugby League in France grew despite constant threats, stadium lockouts and, most disgracefully, an attempt by union authorities to decimate French rugby league under the Vichy Government by banning the sport outright.

The consequences of this decision, with rugby league not allowed to be played in school and the subsequent loss of a player base in France, still echo today.

It is why, as Mike Rylance stated with brutal clarity in The Forbidden Game, “We should not therefore be in a hurry to shake hands sportingly and say the past is best forgotten.”

A resurgence in the 1950s has been marked by a decline for the national team since (with Catalan Dragons winning the 2018 Challenge Cup providing a bright note for the game). Yet… rugby league survives.

Elite 1 – Halfway there

With a history like that, it’s going to take more than a global pandemic to end French rugby league and in a curious way, Covid has increased exposure to France’s top competition, the Elite 1 Championship.

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With UK and Australian rugby league in hibernation, Elite 1 has been streaming online with impressive results. Games are getting between 6-10,000 views, generating new awareness of Elite 1 across the globe.

Watching fans have been treated to a highly competitive league, with the top four all within 0.25 on a points per game basis.

Even Palau, the lowest-ranked team of Elite 1, have lost to teams fighting for the league by less than a try. Nor does Elite 1 lack star names, with Challenge Cup and first-ever French Lance Todd Trophy winner Tony Gigot back with his native Avignon.

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Of course, we shouldn’t pretend that French rugby league hasn’t been hurt by Covid along with every other sport. There are also structural problems, with the two largest clubs in France (Catalan and Toulouse) playing in the English pyramid and their ‘reserve’ teams holding two of the 10 spots in Elite 1. There is an issue with a limited geographical spread, with rugby league confined to the south of France but without a top-flight presence in major cities of Montpellier and Marseille.

As an example, the top three non ‘reserve’ team clubs after this week’s games – Lézignan, Carcassonne and Villeneuve – have a combined population of less than a 100,000. However, unlike the British game that is going through another stage of introspection, a new vision for the Forbidden Game

So what future then for the Forbidden Game? Well, the new President of Fédération Française de Rugby XIII, Luc Lacoste, is providing a clear vision for Rugby League in France.

Plans are underway to expand the Elite 1 to 12 teams, provided they meet certain criteria.

A long-term hope could be that Montpellier, with a population of 250,000, can develop an Elite 1 team. Not only does it bring a major population centre into the top flight but it would connect the Rugby League belt that runs in the South of France from Toulouse to Avignon.

Elite 1 not competing with League in the UK or Australia provides a chance that the momentum from live streams this season can be grown next year and a way found to monetise this new audience. There is the potential to build the Elite 1 final (post-Covid) as a major Rugby League event for European fans.

Of course, what French League lacks is what the whole of Northern Hemisphere Rugby League lacks: an annual international tournament to hang their hat on and attract a TV deal and sponsors.

Now with only England currently competitive (and they spend most time begging for Australians to play them), this is largely outside of French control but with France taking on England at this year’s Rugby League World Cup, it might be the spur to start more serious cooperation.

New leadership within British Rugby League will be offering new chances to co-operate, the Rugby League World Cup represents the first major tournament that will be Covid free and this season’s Elite 1 is reaching a brand-new audience.

There have been many dark moments for rugby league in France and covid blackens skies further but sunlight is beginning to shine down on the future of the XIII. A future that, for France’s Forbidden Game, can no longer be denied.