Leeds United star vows to attend Leeds Rhinos games after getting taste of rugby league

Ross Heppenstall
Leeds Rhinos x Leeds United Alamy

The French connection between Leeds Rhinos and Leeds United

Leeds Rhinos duo Justin Sangare and Mickael Goudemand spent time with Leeds United players and compatriots Illan Meslier and Georginio Rutter on Thursday afternoon.

It was a promotional event ahead of tomorrow’s televised matches on Sky Sports, with Daniel Farke’s Whites travelling to Championship rivals Huddersfield Town for a 12.30pm kick-off.

At 3pm, the Rhinos’ home Super League clash with Catalans Dragons will be also shown live on Sky Sports. Yesterday’s event at United’s Thorp Arch training ground was essentially a bit of fun, a good PR exercise between two great institutions in a sports-mad city.

France Under-21 internationals Rutter and Meslier donned Rhinos jerseys, while France rugby league stars Goudemand and Sangare were resplendent in Leeds United colours.

The French quartet exchanged stories about their backgrounds and sporting careers as well as taking part in a number of challenges, including a game of petanque.

The Rhinos players explained to Rutter and Meslier the difference between rugby league and union. Sangare, signed from Toulouse Olympique at the start of last season, said: “We had a good time and spoke about some funny moments.

FRIDAY READ: Five Super League burning questions ahead of Round 3 including Wigan and Leeds

“It was good to catch up with the Leeds United players, especially the French players, so I’m very happy. We spoke in French together and they explained where they’re from and their stories, so it’s nice to have this connection.”

Sangare invited Meslier and Rutter to Headingley for a Rhinos match, adding: “We’re going to try and get them to come and watch a game and sample the atmosphere. “We can have the same atmosphere but with a different sport.”

The links between the clubs have been sporadic at best over the years, but there have been numerous collaborations. The Rhinos, of course, played at Elland Road in four World Club Challenges between 2005 and 2010.

Who could forget the first of those, a famous 39-32 win over Canterbury Bulldogs and a young Sonny Bill Williams? Certainly none of the 37,028 crowd (the largest attendance for a World Club Challenge on English soil) who packed into a raucous Elland Road.

For boyhood Whites fans Danny McGuire, Richie Mathers, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Danny Ward, it was the stuff of fairytales. In 2018, the Rhinos played Super League games against Hull KR and Castleford Tigers at Elland Road while Magic Weekend will also be held there for the first time in August.

There is, of course, a huge crossover between the fanbases of both clubs, with many Loiners regulars at Headingley and Elland Road. Marching on Together, while a United song, has almost become an anthem for the city of Leeds and is belted out with gusto at both grounds on matchdays.

RELATED: NextGen: Alfie Edgell – the Leeds Rhinos full-back who grew up idolising Danny McGuire

It even used to be played at Headingley before Leeds Tykes home games, such was its popularity. Eighteen months ago, Smith and then United boss Jesse Marsch struck up a perhaps unlikely alliance. They were introduced at a Rugby League World Cup promotional event at Thorp Arch and immediately bonded.

Smith subsequently attended a United match against Aston Villa at Elland Road and the pair planned to stay in touch and swap ideas. Smith said at the time: “I love to be able to pick the brains of a well-travelled, well-credentialed people within sport and business.

“As a young head coach, I think it’s vital to look for best practice and new ideas all the time. I feel like I’ve got to try and reinvent myself on a daily basis.

“It’s not like I’m starting afresh as I’ve got experience, but I’m always keen to see how things get done in other places, reflect on how I do it myself and see how we can do things better.

“That’s something I value highly. When I was in Australia, I went to cricket, AFL, basketball, A-League soccer as well as bumping into NRL franchises.

“I think studying other sports, and industries, is something you have to do as a coach. It’s what you need to do to stay fresh and to get better, I guess.”

Five months after that initial meeting, though, Marsch was sacked and United ended up being relegated from the Premier League. Still, links between the clubs have existed in recent years to varying degrees.

Ahead of the 2020 Super League campaign, the Rhinos squad spent time at Thorp Arch during Marcelo Bielsa’s legendary tenure of the Whites.

Luke Gale, a Whites fan and then a Rhinos player, said in December 2019: “We went up, watched Leeds United train and had some lunch with them.

NOW READ: The Rhinos star who has boosted his England chances with early-season form

“It was fantastic, very intense, and amazing really because they play a great brand of football under Bielsa and it was great to see that behind the scenes. As the Leeds players were warming up, Bielsa came out and the nearest we got to him was kind of brushing shoulders with him.

“I never got to speak to him, but I watched him as they were playing a few games and he was stood in the centre circle casting his eye over everything. Bielsa has five or six other coaches there and there was a lot of Spanish being spoken. It was just amazing to watch really.”

When the Rhinos won the last of their eight Super League titles in 2017, a number of their squad paraded the trophy to much acclaim during half-time of United’s Championship game against Reading.  

A chant of “All Leeds aren’t we” rang out around Elland Road. Fast forward to 2024 and the latest link-up between the clubs came with a distinct French flavour.

For Sangare and Goudemand, meanwhile, the focus is now on defeating the team from their homeland at Headingley tomorrow. Sangare added: “Catalans are going to be a tough challenge.

“It’s a big game and we have to ready for the battle and the war.”

Rutter, who has been a key figure in United’s promotion push, enjoyed meeting his compatriots, saying: “It was good speaking French with these guys. They explained the rules of rugby league because I didn’t know before. Today was good with Illan, Justin and Mickael – we played some games and it was enjoyable.”

Rutter is keen to make it to Elland Road for Magic Weekend in August – should his playing commitments allow. “For sure I’m going to go, if I have time, because I like sport,” he said.

“It’s good when your city has different sports to support. Yes, I think that’s great.”

WEEKEND PREVIEW: Super League Round 3 predictions: Love Rugby League versus Sky Sports commentator Dave Woods