The French Rugby League Elite 1 championship nowadays tends to be overshadowed by the exploits of Catalans Dragons and Toulouse.
The fact a double header will be organised with these two teams this summer, the possible coming of rugby superstar Sonny Bill Williams twice at Gilbert Brutus with Toronto, the very possible promotion of Toulouse to Super League next season in their new Stade Ernest Wallon home, appear so exciting that it would be difficult not to center our attention on the two top French clubs during the coming season.
In comparison, doesn’t Elite 1 seems like routine, a hardcore pursuit only?
It’s true that, on paper at least, the competition seems very closed and unattractive: no promotion or relegation. Always the same teams, more southern than ever, with a majority of Audois and Catalan clubs and among them Palau-del-Vidre, a population of only 3,000, so small but also so important for French RL.
France rugby union, which are not so good at expansion, contrary to what one might think, managed to have a Parisian team permanently in their top 14.
We don’t even have the thrill, the kind we have for example in football, to know that the three top clubs will play a European competition. Even an ephemeral competition such as the Treize Tournoi of the late nineties. Elite 1 looks either like an eternal duet by proxy between Audois and Catalans, a duet sometimes punctuated by a surprise, a Provençal club like Avignon playing the troublemakers. Or by South Western outsiders like Villeneuve-sur-Lot or Saint-Gaudens, the ‘vieille garde’ of French Rugby League, still here but which deserve some attention so that Nouvelle Aquitaine doesn’t become like some kind of French Cumbria; still a famous area of RL, a stronghold, but unfortunately whose teams are not winning great titles anymore.
So, does it mean that today this championship is pointless, without interest?
For those who still have doubts about it, they should have watched the launch of the Elite 1 championship with ‘Le Magic Weekend’.
Fortunately, thanks to an agreement by the French Rugby League Federation (FFR XIII) with the local free Digital TV station Via Occitanie, all the games at Stade Albert Domec (Carcassonne), were televised and available all over France via internet devices.
On the field, we had hotly contested games, spiced up due to 1 extra point for any team winning a game during the weekend, one-point defensive bonus for a defeat within a 12 points margin, and no draws possible with Golden Point.
Palau Broncos and Avignon Bisons kicked things off, the Bisons winning 23-12 (photo: Anthony Monod). Then the South West derby between Albi and Villeneuve-sur-Lot was much closer at 14-16 for Freddy Banquet’s Leopards and their oldest player, 43 year-old loose forward Laurent Carrasco. That was it for the first day, as Toulouse forfeited; all their players got mumps! The second day saw Limoux defeat Lézignan (14-6) and the rematch of last year’s championship and cup finals was won by Saint-Estève XIII Catalan against the host team, Carcassonne (23-12). This thanks to ‘Le Grand’, a nickname for second rower Corentin le Cam (Height: 2.07m and weight: 114 kgs) who scored a decisive try.
Magic Weekend was really an appetizer for the rest of the season and a real launch pad for Limoux’s Grizzlies who, by the time of writing, lead the championship and are undefeated, especially after an away victory over Carcassonne in a very disputed derby (18-24). At the bottom of the league table, Toulouse’s reserve (with only two games played for the reasons given above) scored only one point, thanks to a defence bonus against their Haute-Garonne countrymen, Saint-Gaudens.
And it may give a lesson to all of us. The Elite 1 Championship is now eclipsed by Super League and Championship but Elite 1 is like a rough diamond which just needs to be polished from time to time to show its real value. Polished by a Magic Weekend, decent TV coverage and some new objectives for French teams. Also, by more big cities taking part: instead of creating new artificial regional teams why not try to federate existing teams in areas like in Rhône Alpes (Lyon) Languedoc (Montpellier) or in Greater Paris?
BACK TO BASICS
If French sports journalism was a computer, the following info would certainly be regarded as a ‘bug’ in the system.
FFR XIII has announced the rebirth of the French national amateur team. Made of Elite 2 and ‘Nationale’ players, the team will play its foreign counterparts (BARLA) but also emerging nations such as Germany and Serbia. In a country where Rugby League is still unfairly associated with money in mainstream media editorial offices, this news will be difficult to swallow. Despite the fact there had been a French amateur team since the thirties, and the vast majority of players are, let’s say at most, semi-professional, having ‘rugby à XIII’ and ‘amateur’ in the same sentence will be a new experience for some. I hope the FFR XIII will take this opportunity to remind people that Rugby League is not the bogeyman responsible for the problems encountered by its union counterpart nowadays (‘Le professionalisme’) and also not the scapegoat for the problems of French society (‘L’individualisme’). Without amateur players and volunteer managers, where would be French Rugby League be?
FFR XIII have also announced that Rugby League will go back to French schools. A six-year convention was signed between the Education Ministry and the FFR XIII. It’s clearly a good move for the game because it will offer the possibility for French kids, regardless of the region they are living in, to be introduced to Rugby League. Indeed, RL has nothing to lose. Rugby union is in a more defensive position; accidents (sometimes lethal ones) with young players have left it under a public cloud. They have changed some basic rules at a junior level to make it safer – scrums are no more pushed (does it remind you something?) and they even changed the rules for the tackles; now it’s forbidden for two players to tackle one. Of course, we must keep a sense of proportion: accidents happen also in League. The problem is that union is so outrageously dominating the codes in France that they also carry the image of the whole oval sport in the eyes of the public. So, these new relations with schools could be the opportunity to present Rugby League’s key differences to the wider public. This is a promising development. The UNSS (the French federation of school sports) even suggesting on the rugby (union) presentation on their website: “If two friends are missing to play with you, why don’t you try to play the 13 players code?”
Nostalgia! In December 2006 in Treiziste Diary, one of my predecessors, Cliff Spracklen, gave a list of books for those readers interested in French Rugby League.
As the end of the year is here, with its usual celebrations, you may like to treat yourself with a book or offer one to friends or relatives of yours.
In his column, Cliff recommended not only Louis Bonnery’s book ‘Le rugby à XIII le plus français du monde’ but also various publications about the top French club of that era: Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Written by René Verdier who passed away 4 years ago, ‘L’épopée du 13 Vert’ is one of his most famous books.
Thirteen years later, it’s possible to give a few more titles, even if choices are hard to make. Mike Rylance’s second opus ‘The Struggle and the Daring: The remaking of French Rugby League’ is a must-have book. Especially because he covers the period beyond the World War Two period to the present day and gives an insight towards understanding modern day French Rugby League.
Still available in English, Franck Perrin’s ‘Rugby League, Rugby of the Future’ (translated from French) is full of fascinating historical documents and includes discussions about culture in Rugby League (cartoonists for example and not only French ones).
You may still find these two books easily and order them on the internet, and there is no language barrier!
Now if you’re not afraid of French language and are not discouraged to find used or second hand books here’s my (biased) selection of interesting books, hardly available at usual bookstores. A collector’s item is the 1984 ‘Encyclopédie de XIII Magazine’: well written, it gives you from A to Z a panorama not only about French RL but also World RL. It is full of old black and white pictures of past glories (and then again not only French ones).
Another interesting pocket-sized book is 2011’s ‘Le Who’s who du rugby à XIII’ by Aimé Mouret: it’s on the same model (A to Z) but the main advantage is that you can easily carry it with you. If you meet treizistes on your travels in France, it can help you break the ice to start conversations! For example, if you go to Tonneins, you should try to meet Alain Glayroux, a volunteer historian and author of ‘Les 80 ans de Tonneins XIII’, a well-illustrated and documented book about the history of this famous South Western club.
My last recommendation, to end with Villeneuve-sur-Lot as Cliff did in his column, is the late François Mourgues’s ‘La Gaie Guerre des Planètes Ovales’: difficult to describe this 1998 publication from a famous president of Les Leopards; it’s a hilarious book with cartoons about the history of French RL. If you happen to see it in flea market or on Ebay, do not hesitate to buy it.
In fact, my advice is if you see a book about French RL anywhere, do not hesitate to buy it because such publications are rare and irregular: you may have hard time finding it again!
First published in Rugby League World, Issue 465 (Jan 2020)