Treiziste Diary: French Elite 1 smaller but stronger for new season

Rugby League World’s Treiziste Diarist, Pierre Carcau, looks ahead to a new domestic season in France, with an Elite Championship that has reduced in size but which promises to be more competitive than ever.

In some cultures, the number 9 has a double meaning.

It can mean either the end of a cycle, or the beginning of a new one

This couldn’t sum up in a better way next season’s French Elite 1 championship format. A championship which will recommence in mid-October.

Indeed, the French Rugby League Federation (FFR XIII) published the fixtures of the Elite 1, the Elite 2 championships, the women’s first grade and the wheelchair championship in July. The clubs of the other divisions are, at the time of writing, still waiting for the official dates of their seasons.

And it was an open secret that the status quo would not continue this year. FFR XIII President Luc Lacoste claimed that he wanted a 12 teams-championship. The names of a few clubs were even pronounced. Lyon, Villefranche-de-Rouergue and the most serious candidate for this expansion: Toulon, as local media such as l’Indépendant” reported here.

Toulon’s application makes sense. Toulon is typically the kind of city which could, step by step, help French Rugby League with reconquering urban France

A Port city of 40,000, famous in France for its French navy shipyard, is also the gate to the French Riviera. An international brand, a name not to be neglected for a game starved of recognition.

Furthermore, Toulon is not a new team. They were created in 2011 but are the heirs of an old structure and managed to join the Elite 2 championship in 2017.

Toulon is located in an area where rugby union prevails, but in the South Westerly world of French rugby union, the South East, where Toulon is located, has always been some kind of black sheep, a rebel. Until recently, the club chairman was the colourful character Mourad Boudjellal. The club also hosted a certain Sonny Bill Williams (2008-2010) and almost recruited Israel Folau in 2014.

Therefore, there is a potential audience for the Rugby League side, ‘Toulon Marlins’. Because in France there are no watertight barriers between league and union, some Toulounnais may enjoy watching the games of the ‘rebel’ thirteen-a-side code.

Unfortunately for Toulon, they will have to wait to enter Elite 1. They had to fill certain specifications and according to the FFR XIII, they failed to meet the administrative criteria

So, will Elite 1 remain a domain of ten clubs only?

Not at all, Palau-del-Vidre (no one pronounces the complete name any more in “rugby à XIII”) announced that they would quit the Elite 1 Championship.

Yet the village of 3,000 inhabitants had a decent season last time. All right, the Broncos didn’t make it to the play-offs, but they avoided the bottom of the table, finishing in eighth place.

Although Palau is a tiny village close to the Spanish border, what a story it could tell about French Rugby League. A sport that can give a village an opportunity to play in a national championship.

Although this angle is probably not used to hype their events, have Treizistes missed something in terms of communication? With this “David” who plays some “Goliaths” almost every week?

Anyway, the number of first-grade clubs eventually reached 9. Just nine teams.

But what a championship it will be! The Elite 1 has never deserved so well its name of “Elite”.

Because it will be a tough championship for everyone: with no promoted team joining it, there will be no room for error for the South Western teams which have been used to being at the bottom of the league. Albi and Saint-Gaudens won’t be able to count on some fresh air to relaunch themselves. Palau had always been their direct opponent. But as the Catalans gave up by some kind of technical knock-out, the remaining teams will have to increase their level of play to beat teams like Avignon, if they want to reach safety or just get a decent position at the end of the season.  “9” means pain in some cultures but it could be also the Albi and Saint-Gaudens’ road map for the next season.

The top of the league will be hotly contested for sure.

The present champions, Lézignan (Corbières), are the favourites, especially with James Maloney, Jason Baitieri and Sam Moa wearing the green jersey next season. And their former head coach Aurelién Cologni is not really far away as he’s still in the sport staff of the Audois club, despite the fact he ditched his role in league for union.

As for the other clubs with realistic ambitions of challenging for the title, it is difficult to make any valid prediction right now as they are still in the process of recruiting their squads.

I hope that you will be able to see with your own eyes some matches of the coming Elite 1 championship. So far nothing has been announced in terms of broadcasting, but given the successful experience of video streaming during the last season, we can expect a few games to be visible, and that clubs may offer at least some coverage of their games. They would be very inspired to do so.

No matter how many clubs play in the Championship, the Elite 1’s coverage needs to consist of more than remote written reports in local media if the public within and outside France are to rediscover that French Rugby League is a game of commitment; it’s not flawless, but it is rock solid, despite the many blocks on their road.