Treiziste Diary: Is Rugby League still under enemy fire in France?

Rugby League World’s Treiziste Diarist Pierre Carcau on changing attitudes in French rugby circles and how some are struggling to come to terms with improving relations.

Today, how are the relations between French rugby league and French rugby union?

With Toulouse Olympique (pictured) and Stade Toulousain working together, Villeneuve Leopards and Agen maintaining better relations and a certain Frédéric Michalak joining the Sydney Roosters (and not being slammed by anyone not even the Union press for that), you would probably think that the pipes of peace were smoked between Quinzistes and Treizistes in France?

Actually, this is the case… ahem… almost the case.

But from time to time, you have a veteran coming to town and who likes talking about the old times, when things were much simpler and when League was regarded as the enemy of Union.

Paul Goze is one of these men. But the 69 year old chairman of the so-called “Ligue nationale de rugby” (Anglophone readers will appreciate the irony of this faux-ami) is not just anybody. And Ligue nationale is not just any corporation either. This is a state within a state, which deals with professionalism in rugby union and the organisation of the famous and hyped TOP 14, the first tier of the union clubs competition in France.

The British rugby union magazine Rugby World even nominated him as the fifth most influential personality in union. Moreover, people of “Pays Catalan” know him very well because he was also a chairman of USAP, the union club of Perpignan until the early 2010s. A club he left in the red, and whose debts were written off by USAP club president François Rivière and a certain Luc Lacoste, who is now the current president of the FFRXIII!.

The term of Goze is coming to an end in March 2021. Sensing a change in the wind, he probably felt like taking stock of the past and therefore gave an interview to l’Independent on March 17th.

This would have been under the radar of the Treizistes, if the soon to be retired “Président” hadn’t expressed some obvious inelegance to Rugby League. And it was nothing to do with the usual understatements you may hear in France about Rugby League.

Interestingly, the Perpignan newspaper told their readers about the backstory of the interview. And it was relevant. Not only was Goze was unhappy with their coverage of Top 14 (a note to Anglophone readers; it is impossible to miss something about this championship in France except if you’re living in a cave, of course) but he directly attacked Rugby League. “I’ll will make a confession: When I read l’Indépendant every morning, I start reading the articles about Rugby League. And there are many of them! I like to know my enemy”.

Of course, Treizistes will be affronted by such comments.

But wait, let’s see who is considering League as his enemy.

Even in his own camp, Monsieur Goze is controversial. For instance, his fights against Bernard Laporte, chairman of the French Rugby Union Federation were constant. In 2016, when Goze was re-elected by 97 % of the voters, Bernard Laporte compared him with Ali Bongo, the President of Gabon, suggesting that the “Ligue nationale de rugby” lacked internal democracy. The two men argued a lot about the thorny issue of concussions in union. Not to mention the fact that they haggled about the names and the numbers of players allowed by the professional clubs to play for the national men’s team.

More surprisingly, and for which we can have sympathy for, Goze suffered from a smear campaign on the social networks. Being overweight, Goze expressed his persistent problems of well-being in the press and complained about the “racisme anti-gros” (social stigma of obesity) he was victim of, especially when leading the Ligue and taking some controversial decisions.

So, for right or wrong, Paul Goze is not the kind of personality who can capitalise on his personal profile to damage French Rugby League.

He is just a face of the past, though a painful one for the treizistes of his generation.

Let’s hope his successors will adopt a more modern attitude: regarding Rugby League not as an enemy but as an inspiration and why not also as a partner.