Rugby League World: Barca Bounce

It was Maurice Lindsay who first mooted the idea of Rugby League in Barcelona when Super League began, but nothing ever came of his ambitious plans.

His dream will soon be realised, however, with Catalans Dragons’ facing Wigan Warriors at the iconic Nou Camp, home of FC Barcelona, where they have already showcased their Challenge Cup trophy to the near 100,000 crowd.

But the name FC Barcelona already has some history in Rugby League, albeit short-lived. Although we’re sure Lionel Messi might have made a dangerous half-back and Xavi or Andres Iniesta precise ball-playing hookers, the 13-man code has a story of its own.

Much like the model of Serbian club Red Star Belgrade, who have also branched out into our sport, the Spanish titans had already extended their brand into rugby union, basketball, handball and even ice hockey before they eventually dabbled in a spot of Rugby League.

“It was an honour to play for the name FC Barcelona and the history,” said Jordy ‘Puchy’ Puigvert, who was formerly trainer of the first team. “Of course, the Nou Camp was only for the football players at that time, but we had a very good training venue in Taixonera.

“When I was at FC Barcelona, they didn’t win the league or any trophies, but they did have some success in the early days when they started in 2008. I was also involved in the rugby union team and there was more success there, and they are still a very strong team in the code but Rugby League is no longer there.

“There was a great heritage with the club and there was a lot of pride for the Rugby League players in wearing the famous colours. For us it was a massive experience and we were all very happy. It was difficult at the time because Catalan Rugby League was very new and there were lots of changes happening, but if they tried again it could be huge.”

The club won the newly formed Catalonia Cup by defeating Aligots de Girona and Nord-Català in their first year in 2008. It was a competition created to attempt to build on the success of the Catalans Dragons in Super League, who had just reached their first Challenge Cup final in 2007.

The Dragons then faced Warrington Wolves at the Olympic Stadium in 2009, with further hopes to light the fire in Barcelona, but the club side of things never went to plan. FC Barcelona had, by this point, withdrawn from the Catalonia Cup to compete in the newly created Catalan Rugby League Championship, with interest in the region boosted by the Dragons’ venture.

2009 saw the first edition of the competition, won by rivals Barcelona Universitari Club (BUC) which prompted FC Barcelona to join the party. The next season saw BUC win the title once again, as their neighbours had to settle for a fourth placed finish.

Despite several attempts to drum up interest in one of Europe’s major sporting cities, Rugby League had largely failed as the Catalan Rugby League Championship lasted only two years. Attempts to set up a Catalan representative team that saw them face Morocco as a curtain raiser for a Catalans Dragons game were met by little reaction, with the region also facing Czech Republic and Belgium before disbanding as a federation in 2010.

“Rugby League in the area was fantastic when it was around but it didn’t last long,” explained former player Peter Hall. “I was living abroad at the time in 2008 and I had just moved out to Barcelona. I decided to type Barcelona Rugby League into Google, because I’ve always loved the game.

“I got the name and directions for Trainipong, which is where the rugby union team train. In my ignorance I had not realised that the Rugby League team trained at St Joan Despi, but they were a nice bunch of lads and they let me train anyway once I explained.

“At the time the area was getting quite a lot of attention and we went to go see the Dragons game at the Olympic Stadium. I was a shame it didn’t work out but while it lasted it was a great experience. Maybe Catalans Dragons recent success can give them a new angle to aim at and try to build the area successfully because rugby union have shown that the potential is there.”