It was the summer of 96. One that made Bryan Adams’ itinerary some 27 years previous look rather uneventful, as Rugby League was entering a new era. The summer era. The Super League.
A new era welcomed by near pandemonium, as a sport that was settled on the M62 corridor was undergoing a seismic shift. Animosity still lingered in the traditional heartlands, after plans to merge existing clubs were proposed, but attention quickly turned to an unlikely destination.
At first, it was difficult to comprehend. Rugby League on a Friday night in March, admittedly not quite the summer, at the Charléty Stadium in Paris. But this was Rugby League with a difference and, love it or loathe it, European Super League arrived with a bang.
Fireworks sounded, as visitors Sheffield Eagles and Paris Saint-Germain emerged from a thick layer of smoke across the dugout, as Stevo unforgivingly mispronounced the odd name or two in the Paris side behind the pitch-side microphone.
The Sky commentator ought to have taken pointers from referee Stuart Cummings, who yelled ‘quatre’ as the Paris players reached the penultimate tackle of the first set, but these were signs of a game that was adapting to a plunge into unfamiliar territory.
It’s human nature to doubt the unknown, and Sheffield were admittedly guilty of that, as the French club showed their appetite in the opening stages. “Some of the Sheffield players realise this is not going to be a Sunday afternoon picnic,” were the words of Stevo, as Paris were putting on quite the show to 18,000 inquisitive supporters who flocked to witness history from across the country.
“The first game versus Sheffield was like a final at the end of a season!” Laurent Lucchese, a former Eagle himself, told Rugby League World.
“All the squad were excited about the challenge and ready to give their best and playing against my old teammates like Paul Carr, Lynton Stott, Keith Senior and Paul Broadbent was an extra boost for me to perform well.”
“For the French people who loved the game it was a magic experience,” added Fabien Devecchi. “For everyone, especially the French players, Super League was exciting and the best competition in the world alongside the NRL. To play against the top international stars every weekend was an exciting prospect. It was a dream that became a reality for all of us.”
“It doesn’t get much bigger than that first game. 18,000 came and we won, so we were very happy. For the French players, we’d never been in the spotlight before but we got the chance and even if it was the only chance we ever got it would have still been amazing.”
Paris ran out 30-24 winners on the night, with Frederic Banquet crossing over for Super League’s first try, as the French club proved their doubters wrong. Popular conjecture among reporters at the time was that the Paris club would be an instant disaster, but the first night showed otherwise.
“Some reporters came for a funeral and had to write about a party,” beamed RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay after the game, an iconic quote that rang true, at first. But with any good party, there was an even bigger hangover, and one that was never fully nursed.
That turned out to be a bitter disappointment for Rugby League, as its greatest expansion attempt lasted just two years, but from the outset, it appeared to be a French revolution and perhaps the biggest attraction of that was simply the name of the club. Paris Saint-Germain. One of the biggest sporting brands in the country, if not the world.
“We could feel all the French Rugby League behind us and a great positive atmosphere in and around the team and the president, officials and staff,” added Lucchese. “We had a warm welcome in the Paris Saint-Germain Omnisport.
“The team for the Sheffield game went to PSG v Parma football game and we took the field at half time to promote the upcoming match against Sheffield did some skills and kicked some footballs to the crowd which was special,” said Australian stand-off Todd Brown.
“It was great, you had the French Rugby League supporters who were mostly based in the South and the PSG supporters didn’t know much about Rugby League, but were loyal and very passionate.”
The supporters of French clubs in the Elite competition followed their stars to Paris, as the Super League outfit built their squad almost entirely from French-based players.
Brown was drafted in from St Esteve, who later merged with XIII Catalan to form Catalans Dragons, after reported interest from several English clubs alongside the bulk of the French national side.
“After three years of playing U20s at Brisbane Broncos, I was off-contact and saw an advertisement in Rugby League Week that French teams were looking for players,” said Brown. “Three weeks later I was playing with St. Esteve in the French local comp.
“When Super League was born and the PSG were included in Super League, the original team except Darren Adams were playing in the French Competition. PSG selected 40 players to trial over a few months for three days a week at the institute of sport in Toulouse.”
From the outside looking in, having a French core group of players appeared to preserve the longevity of the club, but in fact, it was its downfall. For Paris was a shell club to the Elite One competition, and their players were required to play two fixtures week for the beginning of the season, one for Paris and one for their respective clubs.
It may have been a dream to be playing in Super League, but the reality was tough on the French players. Rough with the smooth was a real understatement, as playing at the top level was in effect a logistical nightmare.
“We never stopped playing!” said Devecchi, who later played for Widnes. “It was crazy to think we could go into a competition like Super League without actually preparing for it properly.
“We lived in hotels for a few days and then played and then went back down South. It wasn’t easy. Exciting, but not easy. Preparing for a game from a hotel room is almost impossible.”
As Brown remembered: “The French competition started in September and finished at the end of March. We played the French Championship final on the Saturday and then about 10 of us backed up on the Monday to play Castleford.”
“You cannot build a team culture like this,” admitted Lucchese. “When we finished second last the first season, I thought we could reorganise the structure of the club and find the right way to get a competitive team.”
The first season was clearly beginning to take toll on the French players, and Rugby League’s holiday romance was in serious danger of fizzling out.
Desperate measures were required, as John Kear was drafted in by the RFL, where he was working as Academy director, to hold the fort.
But Rome wasn’t built a day, and neither was Paris. Kear’s objective was simple, avoid relegation at all costs, or one of the biggest innovations to date would have sunk without a trace. Thankfully for Kear, the struggle of doubling up fixtures was long over.
“People wondered why they got better, people put it down to the coaching so I’ll take some credit for it, but basically a lot of it was that they were only playing one game a week,” he quipped.
“To tell you the truth, it makes people complaining about playing two games over Easter look tame. It was unbelievable. I was full of admiration for them because they were tired and it was a long hard season, some of them probably played 50 games in the season.
“All it was about was surviving and not finishing last and went down. They didn’t finish in last spot, and did that, and the Cumbrians weren’t happy because Workington went down.”
Mission accomplished for Kear, and he may pin some of the success down to the fixture congestion disappearing, but once you hear his dedication to the cause in his weekly schedule, perhaps more credit was due.
“People ask me, what was your week like?” he said, obviously gearing up for a surprising anecdote. “If we were playing at home in Paris, I flew out from Leeds/Bradford to Toulouse on the Monday.
“All the players would come in and train Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Then they’d get Thursday off. We’d reconvene on Friday and fly up to Paris. We played in Paris on the Saturday, and I’d fly back over Sunday and through to Monday was the only time I got at home with my family.
“When we played away, it was flying down to Toulouse and three days training, but the reconvening part meant them flying into England. When Paris played in England I got more time at home,” he joked.
Extreme circumstances for a first job in coaching, and who would have forgiven a then 41-year-old Kear for loathing his time in Paris? Quite the opposite, however. Steering underdogs to success is the first, second and third chapter of the John Kear coaching manual. He always knew that Paris Saint-Germain was on a downward spiral, it was there for all to see, but he saw no better apprenticeship for a career at the top level.
“I had a ball to tell you the truth,” Kear said. “In my career I’ve always managed resources. Winning the cup with Sheffield and Hull, staying up with Wakefield and getting in the top four with Batley. My time at Paris taught me to do that and It was generally perceived that I did a good job.
“Saying that you could tell at the point I was there that it wasn’t sustainable and I was actually offered the job for the following season by the board, but I’d of had to have left the RFL. I could tell they weren’t generating enough revenue through sponsorship or paid attendees and it wasn’t working.”
Kear was right, sadly. The second season saw Paris struggle even more, Australian coach Peter Mulholland drafted in a team of overseas players, as the French club again finished 11th, banishing Oldham Bears to relegation.
Many questioned this decision, as Paris were inundated with expats. No doubt a major factor in the decline of the club, as attendances plummeted in the second season. Paris were soon to be a footnote in Rugby League history, as Huddersfield Giants were granted their Super League spot.
“He wanted a team with foreigners and only kept three French players from the first season – Pierre Chamorin, Fabien Devecchi and Pascal Bomati,” Lucchese explained.
“It would have been good to have more French players, before we could improve our game to play at the high level, and when we got together with the national team, we knew the intensity that was required,” Devecchi said, mirroring his former teammates’ frustration.
Kear added: “It lost some of that French spirit that you saw in that first game. It was us against the world and I injected that philosophy into them.”
The spirit was lost and so was the Paris club. But two decades later, it’s personnel still have a vested interest in the game in France, with thriving clubs Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique in the domestic game.
The common denominator is that both clubs operate in the South, and Rugby League in France seemingly learnt a valuable lesson from Paris’ demise. The RFL may have been dreaming of Milan and Barcelona, but the trick to spreading the game in France was, as ever, closer to the game’s roots.
“I understand why Jacques Fouroux at the start wanted a team in Paris to promote the sport and get the TV coverage in Charlety but I think we should have moved the club in the South for few reasons,” said Lucchese “To be closer to supporters and play in different spots in the South of France. A club without any roots can’t live long.”
There was some positive to come out the clubs’ demise, however, as Devecchi highlighted: “Because of Paris stopping as a club, the French competition was very strong and that build good grounding for Catalans Dragons to be ready for the competition and then Toulouse.
“All the players took that experience of Super League and kept it in in their home clubs and the young French players learnt a lot from their short time in the competition.”
Kear was fully aware of this after his spell with Paris, however, and had his advice been taken on board, the Catalans Dragons experiment might have happened sooner.
“When I finished the job I had a de-brief with Maurice and I said to him then that it can be success in France, but I don’t think it will in Paris, and it should be in the South,” he said. “That proved to be true. You’ve only got to look at the crowds at Catalans and it’s a fantastic atmosphere, I think Toulouse can be a force in Super League as well.”
French Rugby League is a thriving entity, once again, just as it seemed to be when Paris arrived. But this time, for the long haul, as PSG tested the water for the game across the channel.
The sport might not have been richer from this pioneering move, however, but unforgettable memories back in the summer of 96 remain stitched in the minds of a generation of Rugby League supporters.