Rugby League in France “has to get its act together” or face extinction according to a leading advocate of the international game and a former captain of the French national side.
Tas Baitieri, the NRL’s International Development Manager, a member of the International Rugby League (IRL) and former French national coach, said: “The game is stuffed if they don’t take action.”
Baitieri, the father of Catalans Dragons forward Jason, was in Perpignan last week on a family holiday where he spoke exclusively to League Express about his concerns for the game in France.
His son recently walked out as skipper of the French national team on a tour of Australia citing “a lack of professionalism” from the French Rugby League Federation. A war of words then broke out between him and Marc Palanques, the President of the FFRXIII.
“I’m not over here to be controversial, and the last thing I want is to make matters worse,” Baitieri senior said.
“But this is so important for the future of the game in France that it needs to be addressed urgently.”
Australian-born Baitieri was a forward for Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bankstown in the 1970s and 80s. He finished his playing career in France at Parisian side Chatillon XIII and became coach of the French national team. After returning to Australia he went on to be a leading light in the international game, promoting expansion and helping to develop the sport in Russia, the Middle East and South-East Asia in his roles with the NRL and the International Federation.
He married a Frenchwoman (son Jason was born in Paris) and Baitieri has always considered France as his second home: “I love this country and it pains me to see the game struggling at the moment,” he said.
“There is too much division in the game and it isn’t big enough to sustain it. I spent a decade here in the eighties and the game was very strong at that time. Some members of the current administration were players during that period and I hope they understand what made the game strong then and take some lessons from then and implement them now.
“Elite One levels (the French Championship) are just the same as they have ever been and we have to encourage them to be better. Without a little bit of vision and more importantly some goodwill, we’re stuffed.
The 61-year-old added: “It’s important to stay positive and understand what the limitations are then find ways to solve those problems, whatever they are.
“I think because there’s only one top-flight club in France it does create an issue in that everyone wants to gravitate towards Catalans Dragons but there needs to be a nationwide nursery which is critical to the survival and longevity of the game and that’s where the Federation needs to change somewhat.
“There’s a lack of resources. We’re very lucky in Australia, it’s like being in Rugby League heaven with enormous support, great facilities everywhere and many sources of revenue to support the game.
“It’s clear that this isn’t the case in France so we need an administrative body that goes and looks for people, to encourage them to see what our game is all about and bring in more money and more manpower.
“Society has changed today too; kids have so many options, they spend all their time on their smartphone on the Internet. It is far more difficult now to encourage youngsters to play sport. That’s a global thing, not just a French problem and everybody has to learn lessons from it, even in Australia where we are competing with five other major sports.
“The first step is being mindful of what the challenges are and then coming up with the right solutions for the country.
“France is the only non-English speaking nation of the major countries who play Rugby League and that’s one its first handicaps. They are a special case and it’s so important that we give them support.
“Without resources you are going to need a miracle to survive, never mind improve, but it’s chicken or the egg. Somebody has to stimulate and start things.”
Former French captain Rémi Casty (pictured) echoed Baitieri’s comments and he too called for an end to the division within the game.
Casty told League Express: “We need a good French Championship, it needs to be more professional. If we are going to attract the kids into the game we need better structures, improved facilities and better grounds to play on.
“At the moment, it is only Toulouse and the Dragons where players can make their name in France. The standards at Elite One level need to improve or we will struggle to find the next star player.”
The 34-year-old Catalans Dragons skipper said he was worried about the prospects for France in next year’s World Cup, adding: “It’s very important for us to bounce back after the last World Cup.
Last time around we didn’t make the quarter-finals, which was a real shame for us.
“Unless we stop the in-fighting I’m afraid it could be the same again next year, or worse.
“The last tour we had in Australia, following the World Nines tournament, wasn’t good and we need to know why
“Are we all working together, the French Federation alongside Toulouse and Catalans Dragons? Are we on the same page?
“It’s typical of French Rugby League that we talk a lot about the past, about how successful we were many years ago, but if we are going to have any future for our game we need to pull together.
“We have to push the things that we are good at and work hard at resolving the things we struggle with.
“We have Toulouse and Catalans in the south of France, then there is a gap and there is the French Federation. Even at Elite One level there are a few teams who are divisive instead of working together.
“It is urgent now for our game in France. If we don’t get together, we don’t survive. It will be impossible to keep going like we are at the moment with just two good teams playing in an English competition and the rest of the game playing at a poor level in the French Championship with small attendances.
“We have to be on the same page if we are going to attract sponsorship and revenue into the game, which is what is needed to progress.
“We have to work on our communication with each other, we don’t talk enough.
“I don’t want to point the finger at anyone, because that will only encourage the division but it is a reality, a fact, that we are not good enough in what we are doing at the moment.”