A LEADING figure in French Rugby League believes more clubs should follow Catalans, Toulouse and now potentially Carcassonne into the English league structure.
Alan Walsh, the Wigan-born head coach of Elite 1 club Lézignan, is a big fan of the pathway created since the Dragons were invited to join Super League in 2006 and he would like to see more clubs follow their lead.
The 48-year-old former Carcassonne assistant coach, who moved out to live across the channel 23 years ago after playing for Wigan and Leigh and trying his hand with French side Narbonne, added: “Carcassonne have been speaking about this for a few years now; it is a really well-established club, really well organised and I think it could work.
“Carcassonne will be financially assisted by the local tourist authorities, who are trying to get visitors into the city and I think home support would grow with visiting teams from England providing a fresh new challenge for fans.
“The city council is on board, so I think the financials are in place, the presidents of the club do a great job, they have lots of sponsorship and financial support and I think they are ready for the next level.
“It’s a new dimension for Carcassonne, who have maximised their potential in Elite 1 and are ready for the next step.
“For years there have been only four teams to test them and crowds vary wildly between 300 and 3,000, depending upon the opposition.
“Supporters want a new challenge and I think the club knows that the English competition will bring in more fans.”
Walsh believes other Elite 1 sides will consider the switch if Carcassonne are successful.
He added: “I think Albi Tigers might have a go, because they have a great set-up, they’ve got a huge youth development system and their Elite 1 side is improving every year.
“As for Avignon, I’m not so sure. Interest on that side of the country seems to have dwindled, which is a real shame.”
Walsh feels the French Championship provides a glass ceiling for young players, which stifles development at professional and international level.
He added: “To be part of Elite 1, French clubs have to pay £20,000 per season and there’s no prize money at the end of the year because there is no big sponsor or television contract.
“The clubs deserve a big pat on the back just to be surviving and the amount of development work with junior players is incredible.
“There is some real potential world-class talent at French clubs, the problem is, when they get to 16 or 17 there are very limited opportunities for a career in France.
“Inclusion in the English competition will ensure that more French players get the chance to play at a higher level against full-time pros, which can only be good for the international game.”
Walsh said he understood why there might be opposition to Carcassonne’s bid from established English clubs, adding, “I can see why some of the long-standing clubs on the M62 might feel a little edged out if French clubs come in and move in front of them.
“But French clubs bring something different to the game, instead of us just going around and around in smaller circles for 150 years. Some argue that there is little or no travelling support from French sides, but it’s hardly massive anyway in the Championship and League One, so I can’t see it making much difference.
“I suppose it’s difficult for part-time players to have to travel to France twice a year, having to take some time off work, but there’s a bigger picture.
“If we really want France to be a force at international level, and all of the benefits that would bring to the English game, we have to be serious about working together.
“I don’t know what the league structure will be in 2026, but League One wouldn’t be much of a challenge for Carcassonne, I think they would win it easily.
“It’s a fact that Elite 1 is still in the same position as when I arrived here because the game faces unique challenges in France for media recognition.
“The media here is a closed shop, much worse than in England. There was an international last week between Kenya and France and there was more information in the African media than there was here in France.
“Kids want to see a ladder to the top and there isn’t one at the moment in France. But if we can work with the English sides, we will all see the benefit.
“So we should play to our strengths and work with our friends in England, we’re all playing the same sport, we’re on the same side, and the goal is the same.
“We need top quality international competition between England and France and if that’s going to happen we have to help each other.”
Walsh hopes that the Canaries will be given the green light. But if not, he would like to see further integration between English and French clubs, including a possible revival of a cross-channel tournament from 25 years ago.
He said: “It remains to be seen whether their application will be rubber-stamped but we should see more of this co-operation between the two countries.
“I’d love to see a return of the Treize Tournoi (an experimental knockout competition between Championship and Elite 1 sides in 1998) because I think there is much more appetite for it today.
“Again, this would help create a pathway for young French players who, since Brexit and the advent of visas, are finding it more and more difficult to play in England.”