Opinion: Super League’s French entrée has to be cultivated
On Friday night I was privileged to be a guest of the Catalan Dragons chief executive Christophe Jouffret for dinner prior to the game between the Dragons and Warrington Wolves.
I’d spent the week in Perpignan and had taken the opportunity to sample the café culture in the heart of the city, as well as heading out to the beach resort of Canet Plage, in the days leading up to the game.
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While at Canet it was a delight to meet Magali Pelissier, the mother of the Dragons star Eloi Pelissier, who owns a restaurant on the beach front there, and here’s the photo to prove it.
Eloi played Rugby League from the age of four, and in those early days Magali was his club coach.
In fact she also played at halfback for the French international ladies team, so you can easily see why her son took to the game so well.
Meeting her made me reflect on the fact that in last week’s League Express we published a letter from one of our readers asking more or less why Rugby League fans should be dragged kicking and screaming to the south of France to follow their team.
My suspicion is that the vast majority of Warrington supporters who were there on Friday night would be only too happy to be handcuffed and transported back to Perpignan for their team’s next visit there. It’s the sort of punishment we would all like to be forced to endure.
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The pre-match dinner at the Stade Gilbert Brutus consisted of oysters, followed by some very rarely cooked veal, which illustrated a gastronomic difference between our English clubs and those in France.
My advice to all our readers is to ignore our Mailbag correspondent last week and head out to Perpignan whenever you get the chance.
What strikes me as fairly obvious is that it would be great for Super League, and for French Rugby League, to have a second French team in the competition.
Toulouse is clearly that team, and if that club joined the competition it would be bringing one of the wealthiest cities in Europe into the orbit of Super League.
I’m certain that it would make Super League a more viable commercial proposition, and that in a few years’ time Toulouse would be a major force in the game.
But the question is whether the new structure that the RFL is going to introduce next season will help or hinder such a development.
I asked Christophe Jouffret himself what he thought about that.
“I think that there are a lot of good points and a lot of clubs are supporting the idea of the changes to the structure of Super League,” said Christophe.
“But there is no doubt that to have a second French club in Super League will be tougher now because a group of twelve clubs will be very difficult to be in. It will make it much tougher for Toulouse to reach this level.
“We were invited into the competition in 2006, and we were very happy to be exempted from relegation when we started, and I am very worried about the changing structure because without relegation we could plan for the Catalan Dragons in the long term.
“But we have been very worried this year because we are the only French club and it will be dramatic for the French Rugby League if we are relegated. So that’s why I am a little worried, and I didn’t support the idea of putting relegation in place.
“But, having said that, we have to follow the other clubs, and we are part of Super League. I understand that some clubs prefer the new approach.”
I also asked Christophe whether there will be a chance of a financially rewarding TV contract with a French broadcaster if Toulouse comes into Super League.
“For sure. We have a deal with BeIn Sport, which is part of the Al Jazeera group and they are very interested in Super League, the NRL, State of Origin and international matches,” he replied.
“But it will help greatly if we have a second club in Super League. We would then be able to have a French team playing at home every weekend in this competition.
“I believe that if Toulouse were to be part of Super League it would prove much easier to create a viable TV contract, and that would be the start of very great progress for French Rugby League.”
The rewards are great, potentially, but there are also great dangers in the new structure that the RFL has put into place.
That last thing I would like to see is the progress that has been made in France in the last nine years jeopardised.
But the RFL is certainly playing a high-risk game.