Rugby League World’s Treiziste Diarist Pierre Carcau asks if French Rugby League makes enough of its own eventful history as a means of building its profile with the French sporting public.
Thanks to historians and writers such as Mike Rylance, Tony Collins, Gavin Willacy and others, British fans who are interested in French Rugby League have a good knowledge about the history of Rugby à XIII.
And it is a fascinating story! The amazing visit of Jean Galia’s boys to England in the 1930’s, the tragedy of the ban in 1941 under the wartime Vichy government (which can only elicit sympathy from Treizistes in the country of Winston Churchill), the famous tour in Australia in 1951.
Add in a few other epic games when France beat the major nations, and, in more recent times, the Catalans Dragons’ adventures in the Super League and Challenge Cup, plus the ambitious Toulouse Olympique in the Championship.
Books have been written; films could be made as well. There is really some excellent raw material to build a legend. The legend of a resilient game that even Vichy and rugby union didn’t manage to kill.
Plus, make a link with the history of the Cathars (those Middle Ages Audois rebels) and add a pinch of Catalan identity, all this may contribute to create a legend of ‘resistance’, of ‘underdogs of history’. With of course, that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the natural preference we always have for outsiders.
In France, this legend has been relayed by French Rugby League writers, Louis Bonnery (of course ) in 1996 in his famous book ‘Le rugby à XIII, le plus français du monde’, later by Robert Fassolette, and the XIII Actif association in the late 1990s, who devoted a lot of energy to promote this aspect of French sporting history.
You’ll also find part of the legend distilled in Aimé Mouret’s book ‘Le Who’s Who du Rugby à XIII’.
So, we have a legend, but what can we make of it?
Not very much today, I’m afraid.
There is another legend in France; you might call it ‘la légende du rugby’. This one was written by the ‘victors’ of the code war in France: French rugby union. It starts like the English one; Webb Ellis picking a ball at the Rugby school with his hands. Then you have French students importing rugby (still only union at that time) via Le Havre. And discretely but suddenly, the umbilical cord is cut with England. The game grew indeed in the South West of France. But why? Because there, the légende du rugby said that there was a popular sport ‘La Soule’ before. Two villages would fight to get some kind of rough ball. Actually, there was no rules. You could die during one of these ‘Soule’ events but at least you would fight for your village and your family. Then, people would have found a similar spirit in the new rugby. A collective spirit and an idea of unselfishness which are still associated with rugby union in France nowadays and (cynically) which is bankable for the sponsors. When you sponsor a union game, or a club, you benefit from this good image, of rugby, a sport with supposedly high values (literally and figuratively).
Add the excellent reputation of union fans in France. It is said there are no hooligans at union (for the televised games at least!) and the respect for any stake holders of the games, referees included.
Those who are on the field may know the different reality from this ‘perfect’ image all too well. Brawls are reported in the lower divisions, referees and players are abused. Every old ‘Quinziste’ has a story to tell about a violent game they recall vividly.
But what matters, especially for the general public is really the first image, the impression they are given. We cannot blame them for that.
Even if French Rugby League could claim to have a great legend of its own (and the better one) would it change things in France today?
In a country dominated by another code, association football, where you have more chance to know the latest results of the Spanish league rather than any other domestic championship in France, Rugby League isn’t boxing in the same category.
Except by trying to be more visible and being more and more successful on the international stage it is hard to see how Rugby League can make a significant media breakthrough here.
Our great sporting legend may one day capture the heart of the French public, but it will be useless if we can’t put actual games in front of their eyes.
A relevant sign of this is the fact that the last three FFR XIII presidencies stopped communicating about the Vichy wartime ban. They also seem to have given up their claims about biased or non-existent coverage of the sport in the national media.
Instead, their aim now seems to be to follow a strategy of trying to integrate Rugby League with French sporting and international institutions, an attempt to gain a foothold in an oversaturated market by using classic economic means. But will it be enough?
Sooner or later, won’t the FFR XIII have to choose a clear communication to the general public?
To do so, will they embrace the positive and effective ‘légende du rugby’?
After all they could claim to be part of the ‘rugby family’.
Or will they want to distinguish themselves as some kind of ‘légende de resistance’?
Luc Lacoste and his team have four years to answer the question.