England head to Perpignan this weekend with French rugby league riding the crest of a wave.
Catalans winning the League Leaders’ Shield and reaching their first Grand Final was followed by Toulouse securing promotion to Super League.
Plans to host the 2025 World Cup are well underway, and England’s visit for mens and womens internationals on Saturday provides a timely opportunity to showcase French rugby league.
When Catalans joined Super League in 2006, the two primary objectives were to improve the French national team and open the competition up to new commercial markets.
Neither has really happened.
With a second French team joining them from 2022, the pressure is now on to deliver amidst a backdrop of central funding cuts, rising costs and post-pandemic struggles.
If presence in the fourth biggest city in France can’t bring a broadcast deal or new sponsors, then it could be time for the “European” Super League experiment to end.
A possible legacy being championed for a 2025 World Cup in France is to make its domestic competition full-time from 2026.
That would at least give Catalans and Toulouse somewhere to go, if English clubs decide to cut them loose in a few years – something which is now being raised as part of ongoing structure discussions.
Insiders rate France’s chances of winning the 2025 World Cup bid as 80/20, and so the next four years are going to be a rollercoaster in deciding what the landscape looks like beyond then.
Sold out test matches in France would be a good start to deciding that.
Providing competitive tests for England
One of the biggest issues facing international rugby league is providing competitive tests for England, without the presence of southern hemisphere nations.
Boosted by the appointment of Laurent Frayssinous and Trent Robinson, France are arguably now in the strongest position they have been in the 15 years since Catalans joined Super League.
Even with a number of key personnel missing, they have an exciting team to put out.
The question remains whether France can provide a true test to England on a regular basis to help bridge the gap to Australia and New Zealand.
It’s England’s first game in France since 2016, when they were 40-6 winners in Avignon.
England have won the last 18 meetings, and France haven’t managed to score more than one try in any of the last seven meetings.
What the coaches have said
While England are admittedly under-strength for the match at Stade Gilbert Brutus, France coach Laurent Frayssinous is confident they can demonstrate their strength.
He said: “We are all competitive. We prepare to win the game because we want to win the game.
“On the back of that, it’s about building as well for the World Cup in 2022.
“It’s also been a long time since we played England. So we want to show England that we can provide strong opposition and make sure in the future we can play a match every year or every second year.”
England have scored 204 points in their last four meetings with France. But there is an eagerness to re-instate regular international meetings between the two sides.
Shaun Wane said: “We’ve got a lot missing, they’ve got a couple missing – the big one is Ben Garcia. But, if you look at the confidence Catalan have been playing with and also Toulouse, they’ve got a great squad.
“And we know how much they bar up when they’re playing at home in Perpignan. It obviously means a great deal to them and I’m expecting this to be very intense.”
In the context of the World Cup
This will be the last meeting between the two nations until next year’s World Cup.
France have been drawn in Group A with England, which also includes Samoa and Greece.
RFL chief Ralph Rimmer confirmed this week that England will once again play the Combined Nations All Stars team in the mid-season international in 2022.
His French Federation equivalent Luc Lacoste has been very keen to re-establish the annual tests.
Though with the increased logistics of two French teams in Super League to get used to in a shortened year due to the World Cup, as well as the fact the two nations meet in the group stages, it looks like being 2023 until a mid-season Anglo-French battle.
But there’s no doubting that French rugby league is back on the map. Where it goes from here, is in their hands.
Squad and match details
France team v England: Kheirallah, Escare, Laguerre, Jussaume, Yaha, Mourgue, Gigot, Navarrete, Marion, Dezaria, Julien, Seguier, Goudemand. Subs (from): Pelissier, Puech, Sangare, Le Cam, Cozza, Rouge.
England team v France: Evalds, Davies, Lyne, Hardaker, Makinson, Lomax, Abdull, Walmsley, McShane, Cooper, Bateman, Farrell, Knowles. Subs: Currie, Leeming, Oledzki, Philbin.
Live on BBC1, Saturday October 23, 2.30pm