Rugby League World’s regular Treiziste Diarist, Pierre Carcau, reviews the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Rugby League in France.
The height of the Covid-19 crisis was not really the time to worry about French Rugby League’s future, with so much else to be concerned about.
The virus struck an unprepared France so strongly that the country had to apply one of the strictest lockdowns on earth. A French politician even said that France had to be kept in an induced coma due to the severity of the outbreak.
And the French people, often portrayed as rebellious in nature, proved to be law abiding, resolutely sticking to the lockdown restrictions.
Just like their fellow citizens, Treizistes had to face dramatic changes to endure this unprecedented situation.
But to any regular observer, it was clear that Rugby à XIII would survive anyway.
Why? Simply because Treizistes are used to living without continuous financial infusions and attention from the French state, the media, or big companies.
An urban legend categorises Treizistes as mercenaries who only care about money. But many clubs are sustained by volunteers, some clubs are run by families, and even the French first tier competition is played by semi-amateur players.
Many players or coaches have a job or a business aside. So once the decision to cancel all the championships was made by the French Rugby League Federation – “To get a Championship title, you need to deserve it”, said FFR XIII Président Marc Palanques – the clubs were more like SMEs trying to cope with the situation.
Some, more like non-profit associations or societies, being concerned about getting or not getting the regular planned subsidies: the aids given by the various local governments.
For instance, the Département of Pyrénées Orientales (nicknamed sometimes ‘North Catalonia’ by Catalan activists) had planned before the crisis to give £45,000 this year to all Elite and amateur clubs of their zone. As a comparison, the same local government had also decided to grant £345,000 (all different aids combined including the support to their training centre) to the Catalans Dragons.
Make no mistake; these sums of money were already budgeted in by the clubs before the pandemic; they are not at all extras to face the crisis.
But if it was not the right time to worry about the future of the game, it was legitimate to feel concerned about Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique’s tribulations. Would the crisis stop their route to being fully recognised and established at the highest level? When the UK imposed its own lockdown.
With no end in sight to that in force in France, we started hearing voices fearing the that the Gallic clubs or Toronto would prevent the Super League and Championship going on when both competitions resumed, due to ongoing restrictions of travel.
Assuming perhaps, with too much optimism, that the Covid-19’s virus would be better fought in UK than in France or Canada?
At that definitive moment, Catalans Dragons coach Steve McNamara, speaking to League Express, assured people across the channel that the Catalans would be prepared to play even their home games in England, if the situation required.
It was probably the best thing to say at that time, but even if the sincerity of the Catalans club could not be questioned, it was very bold for anyone to make any prediction about the outcome of the Covid-19 crisis back then.
As it turned out, the revised fixtures issued when Super League resumed had the Dragons playing four consecutive games in England, but home games in Perpignan are now scheduled, subject to the quarantine exemptions for professional sports teams being applied.
These games can even take place in front of limited crowds, unlike in the UK, due to the different lockdown rules now in force in France, which illustrates how difficult it is to try and second-guess any eventuality in the midst of a pandemic.
In comparison, Toulouse Olympique’s response to the crisis seems more discreet but that’s probably more because they don’t benefit from the same level of coverage as the Dragons.
The club’s chief financial officer Cédric Garcia told me they had created a ‘crisis unit’ to analyse all possible options for getting through the pandemic. For example, how to benefit from the state system of furloughing, and getting the support of their main bank, the CIC Sud Ouest.
As a result of those efforts, Toulouse Olympique managed to have their employees paid 100% during the pandemic, yet the prospect of promotion to Super League went when the Championship season was declared void. and another year of purgatory will follow.
Purgatory seems, perhaps a harsh word to describe the Championship, which is an attractive competition, but for French newsrooms, ignorant as they are of many Rugby League competitions, the sooner Toulouse Olympique is in Super League, the better.
Not to mention that the entire South West of France is being marginalised: when is the last time you heard about Villeneuve or Saint Gaudens? Having this area represented at the highest level is essential for the profile of French Rugby League and its recovery in this territory.
The battle for Paris and the north of the country may wait, but South West of France should be top priority for the growth (and the preservation) of the game.
Aside from the battle for survival, French Rugby League has also found ways also to keep renewing itself. ‘Pacifique XIII’ is the best example of that.
The Covid-19 outbreak is probably the moment people would least have expected a new structure to be created, but Laurent Garnier didn’t see it like that.
His ambitious project to create a Francophone Pacific team involving New Caledonia (a French territory that makes France the closest country to Australia, administratively speaking) and Vanuatu (a former French colony) is definitively an exciting initiative. As is the creation of new teams at the French grassroots such as Belvèze Razès XIII in Aude, or Saint-Estève XIII Riberal in Pyrénées Orientales.
Among all the clichés you may find in the French pro-union press, Rugby League in France is sometimes described as ‘moribund’.
But French Rugby League has proved something recently: it is able to do more than just survive, even in the face of a global pandemic.