It’s tough to make it to the top in rugby league, particularly in France where rugby union is so strong. So what makes a young French player choose the path towards a professional contract?

Maxime Stefani


Rugby League World talks to 25-year-old second-row Maxime Stefani who turned pro last year with Toulouse Olympique and has been putting in impressive shifts in the Olympians’ recent successful streak.

Max, when did you first pick up a rugby league ball and why did you choose XIII over XV?
All of my family plays rugby league, my father played in a small club near my home town St Gaudens, all my uncles played so it’s almost like I had to play too. I did other sports like swimming, gymnastics and boxing but always continued to play rugby league, ending up in Elite 1 with St Gaudens before I switched to Toulouse.

How big of a challenge has it been to make the switch from amateur to pro?
It was a real step to climb but I always tell myself that challenges must be taken. Even if we fail, we always move forward. By working hard, we succeed.
For me, it was all about concentration, learning and perfecting technical things and I’ve evolved a lot in a year and a half. On the tackle, the passes, all my passes are good now for example even though I still have room for improvement.

You took a risk by leaving your full time job, how did you feel? Were you scared?
I’m not good at taking risks but I wanted to leave St Gaudens and my big brother was in Toulouse so I thought why not go live with him and have an adventure? Plus it’s quite easy to find work in Toulouse. In addition, I had a rather painful breakup so it made my departure easier, I told myself that it was time to let go of everything and it worked.
When I said that I was signing for Toulouse and leaving my full time job, there was a big upheaval with my parents. They were worried because I had a job and my life was mapped out. My dad was really concerned and tried to dig out other possibilities in case it didn’t work. The original plan was just to play amateur in Elite 1 with Toulouse, work was less important, but my game improved so much with the training I received, all of a sudden I became a pro.
Now my family are so proud, they are there at every game and my mum will be screaming all the time because she can’t help it.

Talking of family, your brother has followed in your footsteps, how is it going?
It was my idea to push my younger brother Mattéo to join the Toulouse training centre this year. He played ten matches with the Elite team where he was successful, he even had the chance to play his first game alongside me against London at the Summer Bash. He’s been very impressive, at 18 I was not at his level. For me, he needs to be more consistent. All the great players are consistent and if he can do that he will be a very good player at centre or even fullback.

Are the opportunities for young French players greater now than ever, thanks to the professional coaching provided by Toulouse Olympique and Catalans Dragons?
The chances have increased since there are now two training centres. The Toulouse training centre has counted a lot of French players over the years, many of whom are now with the professional team. The more professional clubs there are, the more visibility there is in the media and more French players go to Super League and Championship clubs to try their luck.
There are now real opportunities for good young French players and even I, who was not very young at 23, was able to try my luck as a professional.

Who are the French players that you look up to, who have been your inspiration to copy or emulate?
In terms of French players, Rémi Casty. He was my attack and contact approach coach last year, he taught me lots of little tips for evasion, getting out of the tackle and approaching in contact. I also liked Jean-Christophe Bourlin, a prop from St Gaudens, who taught me the technique on the ground in order to be at 100 per cent. I watch many Super League and NRL games to find inspiration as well, and study the techniques of all players, as each player is different. You can have a very big second row or a little hardworking one like me. The main thing is to work; when you work you can succeed in any position.

Is it difficult being part of a French club in an English competition with so many English-speaking team-mates? How important is is that there are no divides or barriers within the playing group?
I don’t think it is too difficult, we can see that the Dragons are succeeding, because they are top of Super League. It requires a lot of work though, it took the Dragons ten years to have a really competitive team, so it’s with hard work that we achieve our goals.
In terms of divides, I think that in all teams, whether it is 100 per cent French or not there is always a risk to have groups. If there are foreigners they will adapt to the French culture and the other way around, the French will have to adapt in the UK. For example, we French are much more tactile than foreigners.

Toulouse Olympique face unique challenges and difficulties competing in a UK-based championship, is that tough for the players?
Traveling to England so often is a challenge but we have put ourselves in the condition that we will spend 72 hours together so we should make the most of it. We are a family so when things are bad everyone feels bad and when things are going well we have fun. When we go to England we all try to put in good energy into training and performing. England is becoming an extension to our home, the hotel is our home.

Who are the real “characters” in the Toulouse squad, the ones who make training fun, and how important is it to have a good team spirit?
Usually it’s Josh (Ralph) and the Maoris like Dominique (Peyroux), Reubenn (Rennie) and Sita (Akauola), they’re the ones who always joke around. Josh always brings this energy, his joie de vivre. There are always people who, as soon as we get a little lost, reframe us, such as Harrison (Hansen) and Anthony (Marion). They know how to laugh but as soon as we have to get back to work they will tell us to calm down and crack on.

What are your ambitions in the game for yourself and for Toulouse Olympique?
My personal ambitions are to play my first match for the France national team. I was preselected for last year’s World Cup but now I would like a real selection with the national team.
I want to continue to improve and perfect my rugby and my skills such as wrestling on the ground, my way of impacting in defence and my vision of the game in attack in order to have more opportunities to score or have my teammates score.
For the club, our goal is to go back to Super League and to remain there. Succeeding in having two French clubs in Super League would be great so that French Rugby League can survive in a nation where rugby union is so strong.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone