This weekend could be one of the most important in the history of rugby league. Believe it or not, that isn’t an understatement.
Come Sunday evening, we could see a French team crowned as Super League SLGG champions, and another could join the competition if they win their promotion playoff.
Catalans Dragons, who finished top of the regular season ladder, will face reigning champions St Helens in Manchester for the Super League title, while back in France, Toulouse Olympique XIII will face Featherstone Rovers for in the Championship Grand Final.
This isn’t a flash in the pan, or even that unexpected: the Catalans have been in Super League since 2006 and won the Challenge Cup in 2018 and Toulouse are unbeaten so far this season, even more impressive for having played their whole campaign on the road in England.
Regardless of the results this weekend, the success of both clubs is being seen as a seminal moment in the sport, with the long-dormant fourth power of rugby league—behind Australia, New Zealand and England—perhaps awakening from decades of slumber.
“There’s every chance that this can raise the level of French rugby league, because we have a French team that can play at the level of the Grand Final,” said Bernard Sarrazain, CEO of Toulouse Olympique. “The second thing is that these two teams are the suppliers for the French national team.”
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France has competed in every World Cup, but hasn’t challenged seriously since the 1980s. While domestic competition never abated, they lacked pathways to the full-time professional game at a time when the Australian game went into overdrive and the British game, while still behind the Southern Hemisphere, left France in the dust.
However, with the addition of the Catalans Dragons to Super League in 2006, followed by Toulouse in 2015, there is now a clear route for players. It is paying off. France is set to host the 2025 Rugby League World Cup, which could see them field their most competitive team since they last hosted, in 1972.
This isn’t expansion: it’s fruition. Expansion is going where you’ve never been before, but rugby league has been in France since the 1930s, and to say that Toulouse or the Catalans Dragons represent expansionism is to ignore those who, perhaps most of all rugby league people, have fought the hardest to play the game.
French rugby league was birthed in a similar way to rugby league in most places: through accusations of professionalism levied by rugby union authorities.
As in the original breakaway in 1895 in England, or in the foundation of the game in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1900s, French players were accused of being paid to play in the early 1930s and were thrown out of the Five Nations Championship by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Using the cast-iron rugby league logic of ‘if you’re going to accuse me of getting paid to play, I might as well get paid’, a significant portion of the elite players in the game switched to rugby league. Within five years, there were almost equal numbers of league and union clubs in France, and the national team was good enough to have defeated the English in England, which their rugby union counterparts had never done.
The coming of the Second World War, however, put paid to all of it. When France was conquered by the Germans, the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime—aided by a few rugby union higher-ups in their ranks, notably sports minister and former union international Joseph Pascot—had league banned and its assets seized. Even the name ‘rugby’ would be taken from league, with the sport rebranded ‘jeu a treize’.
This history is known to just about every rugby league fan in France, and perhaps informs how their clubs are so willing to work together to keep the fire burning. Solidarity is a virtue.
On the business side, Sarrazain explains that they are thinking about working together, though it is too early to talk concretely before they have qualified for the Super League. He describes their relationship as an “entente parfaite”.
That said, Toulouse would need to improve commercially to compete at a higher level. “Even though we had a bigger budget in comparison with the English teams in the Championship, we would fall behind in Super League. We need to double the budget so that it ends up at around US$7 million.”
“One hopes to have more spectators when we are in the Super League and thus make more money by selling more tickets. Then, the TV rights will come on top of that. Even if the first months are going to be a little complicated, we hope that there will be a bit of calm in our budget.”
This could be where Toulouse has a unique selling point to rugby league: perhaps alone among Northern Hemisphere clubs, they are from a wealthy area and have access to blue-chip sponsors. The local aerospace industry, in particular, has supported them in the past.
Perhaps even more uniquely, they work co-operatively with their local rugby union club, with whom they share a stadium. Should they win promotion, they would be well placed to compete financially with the rest of the league.
Catalans Dragons, based in the resolutely proletarian city of Perpignan, have never had the same opportunities, but bring a different angle. They have always pointedly represented a whole region rather than just a city, and have played games as far south as Barcelona.
It’s hard to remember a time when their main sponsor was not the region itself, or its tourist board, and they have managed to weaponize their location and its culture for their ends.
They have creamed off elite talent from the UK and Australia, drawn by the allure of living by the beach in the South of France, and combined that with a marketing message that appeals across all rugby league fans in France beyond just those in Perpignan.
Should Toulouse join them in the top flight, their derbies against each other—they are around 100 miles apart—will be appointment viewing. A TV deal with French broadcasters, now able to show a Super League game live from France every weekend, will surely follow.
While Catalans winning the competition would be a landmark day for ‘the forbidden game’, as Mike Rylance’s history of French rugby league called it, the bigger story might yet be in Toulouse.
Having one very good team is great, but having two good teams in the elite competition could be transcendent for rugby league in France. After this weekend, that might be reality.