Twenty two years ago this week, one of British Rugby League’s most innovative yet typically short-lived innovations was reaching its conclusion.
On November 1, 1998, Villeneuve Leopards lifted the inaugural – and only – Treize Tournoi trophy by beating Lancashire Lynx in front of 10,283 fans at the Stade de Toulouse.
It was the culmination of a month of thrilling action between three clubs from England and their French counterparts.
The Division One Grand Finalists Wakefield Trinity and Featherstone Rovers joined the Preston-based Lynx, with Villeneuve representing France alongside St Estève (one half of what is now Catalans Dragons) and Limoux.
Each club played two of the teams from across the Channel home and away, with the two table toppers then meeting in the final.
From the moment Steve Hampson’s Lynx stunned champions St Estève 40-26 on the opening weekend, the Treize Tournoi provided some memorable clashes.
Super League-bound Wakefield went into it on the back of their Grand Final celebrations and Featherstone after having parted company with coach Steve Simms following defeat, which probably adversely affected both clubs’ performances.
But every team finished with at least one win, with Lancashire and Villeneuve recording three each, despite Hampson later revealing that his side weren’t getting paid to play in the competition.
The final was a tightly contested affair, which was edged 16-10 by the Leopards in the closing stages, and providing two teams full of interesting names.
None were bigger than former Australian test star Paul Sironen, who lined up at prop for Villeneuve, alongside current Ottawa Aces coach Laurent Frayssinous, future Super League hooker Julien Rinaldi and ex-Keighley favourite Grant Doorey.
For the Lynx, former Wigan man Doc Murray lined up at fullback, the vastly experienced Andy Ruane at hooker and on the wing was Neil Parsley, who fans of that era might remember took part in ITV’s hugely popular Gladiators around that time.
Lancashire Lynx led 10-0 before the Leopards stormed back, with Frayssinous’ 69th minute try and Freddie Banquet’s conversion proving decisive.
The match was shown on French national television, and the bumper five-figure crowd illustrated the competition’s potential.
But unfortunately it was never repeated, despite the introduction of Catalans and Toulouse into the English leagues years later.
Still, there are those that remember the Treize Tournoi with fondness, including myself.
I was only 19 at the time and at university, but I was fortunate enough to be sent to accompany Featherstone’s trip to St Estève to cover the game by League Express.
All three teams flew together, including one journalist with each club, and it was certainly an eye-opening experience for a very green young reporter.
In that Featherstone team were a handful of seasoned old pros like Carl Hall, Shaun Irwin and Richard Chapman.
But the club also used the Treize Tournoi to blood a host of promising youngsters, among them Jamie Rooney and the on-loan Jamie Peacock, who both played in St Estève.
Karl Pratt was closing in on a move to Leeds Rhinos, while Stuart Dickens was establishing himself as a first-team frontrower.
In Wakefield’s team were a host of players that would become key figures in their top-flight return, including the March twins Paul and David, Wayne McDonald and Adam Hughes.
It seemed such a good idea, to have the leading part-time teams from each country face each other over a short period of time, and although the crowds in England were a touch below average, the attendance for the final was a major success.
Football had flirted with a similar idea in the Anglo-Italian Cup, which ran intermittently between 1970 and 1996 and also had its high points.
But the Treize Tournoi would be a complete one-off, never to return, which was an undoubted shame.
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.