There are no major changes at the top of the French domestic competitions in season 2023-2024, but below that, the situation is somewhat different.
“THE more things change, the more they stay the same.”
This pessimistic saying could only have been invented by a Frenchman; novelist and journalist Alphonse Karr (19th century).
At first sight, these words could suit the domestic Men’s French championships perfectly.
As usual, the domestic competitions recommenced this autumn, with (again) a 10-team Elite 1 championship made up of the same teams as last season: Albi, Avignon, Carcassonne, Lézignan-Corbières, Limoux, Pia, Saint-Estève XIII Catalan, Saint-Gaudens Toulouse Elite and Villeneuve-sur-Lot.
Remember the past declarations of ex-FFR XIII President Luc Lacoste about an extension of the competition to 12 teams? Well, not this season!
We almost had a new team: Ille-sur-Têt, a Catalan village with 5,000 people, a rugby league stronghold with a very decent stadium (Stade Jean Galia, capacity about 4,000 with nearly 2,000 seats) and a spectacular site nearby which could interest the public; the ‘Orgues’, two geological curiosities, rock formations that reach heights of around ten metres. Unfortunately, the club, founded in 1945, won’t reach the summit this time. The leaders of last year’s Elite 2 don’t have a sufficient budget to survive in Elite 1.
Talking of a lack of budget, this also resulted in the disappearance of RC Baho XIII from Elite 2, a club based in another Catalan village, coached by someone who needs no introduction, Laurent Garnier. Palau Broncos will take their place, joining Carpentras. Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue, Ille-sur-Têt, Lescure-Arthès, Salon-de-Provence, Tonneins, Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Villegailhenc-Aragon.
Baho, as a village, won’t disappear from the rugby league landscape and will form a joint effort with nearby Toulouges (not a typographical error and nothing to do with Toulouse!). Nicknamed the Falcons, they are to play in Nationale this season.
So, nothing very new for the two top men’s championships. Except maybe a new opportunity for me to explain to the readers of RLW that, yes, there is in theory a system of promotion and relegation but practically, Elite 1 and Elite 2 have been working as closed leagues these last few seasons. No matter if you’re the biggest fish in the pond, you have to meet economic specifications if you want to swim in the sea.
This is probably why paradoxically these two championships are stable and solid. Any resource counts and can’t be wasted. They also maintain a certain level of quality, with intense games, tries and also unpredictably: But don’t get me wrong; of course, Elite 1 has become the private reserve of Aude Département but last season Limoux won the competition and not Carcassonne. The second placed team in the league beat the leaders with the biggest budget. This is why making predictions is not so easy, and at the time of writing, Albi, a non-Audois team is second in the table.
If you take a closer look, you will find some novelty in the lower men’s division.
We say goodbye to Fédérale, technically the fourth division.
The FFR XIII completely overhauled the third and fourth levels of the game. Officially, there are now four National divisions from 1 to 4. But don’t imagine four distinct and graded championships with their league tables otherwise you will miss the originality of the system which is a mix of a regular championship and knock-out competition.
Nationale 1 and Nationale 2 are parts of the same first set; they are divided into two pools; the highest placed teams play against each other after a regular phase; the lowest placed clubs too but in their own competition.
Nationale 3 and Nationale 4 are parts of the second same set but with a big difference; Nationale 4 is actually made up of teams who are not able to play the thirteen–a-side game and play nines instead. It’s easy to see that Nationale 4 is some kind of recovery pool for teams who cannot play a regular championship because of a lack of human or financial resources. If the cause of this invention wasn’t so frustrating (clubs outside of the heartlands are struggling to survive), I would very much approve of that pragmatical change.
Oh, by the way, a curiosity – XIII Catalan are back as a distinct men’s team and will play the pool ‘south’. The public may be confused, as they will exist alongside the Catalans Dragons and Saint-Estève-XIII Catalan. But all you have to know is there is a fascinating logical and bureaucratic reason behind it.
But this year, there is also a negative novelty. Not a single ‘Great Parisian’ team will compete in a regular French rugby league championship.
It doesn’t mean that Corbeil, Chatillon, Paris-Charenton and Nanterre have disappeared. They have still youth sections and are involved in other activities if not on the pitch.
For example, the Corbeil Spartiates are running humanitarian projects; they organised a trip in Morocco to help the population with the consequences of the September 8th earthquake, which received coverage in the local newspaper ‘Le Parisien’. Next they are planning to organise an action in the north of France which was hit by exceptional floods.
Yet this is of concern because if someday rugby league leaves the Great Paris region, nothing will curb the natural penchant of Treizistes for some kind of regional identical closure. The Nationale 3-4 pool North which was supposed to be played by Châtillon and Corbeil will include three clubs only: Normandy’s Saint Pois and two western teams, Nantes and Vertou.
However, against all expectations an outsider to the sport has created a new rugby league section in the west of Paris, the ASCO Rugby League XIII (ASCO is a French acronym for western railwaymen sporting association), based in La Garennes-Colombes. The name of the city may not sound familiar to you, but those who know Paris will locate it more easily if I mention that it is pretty close to La Défense, a major business district in the French capital.
It is the brainchild of Olivier Vidal, a 42-year-old westerner, a former union fan, and a rugby union rules pundit, consulted by media such as Midi Olympique and L’Équipe.
Why did he join rugby league? Because of the rise of Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique, which piqued his curiosity. He told me he was tired with union and its recurring problems: partial refereeing, inertia, and riding the gravy train.
Helped by the city of la Garenne-Colombes and the local FFR XIII development agent, Vidal created three youth teams (U7, U9 and U11) and hopes to be able to open an U13 section.
He speaks English and, in the medium-long term, is willing to develop relations with Australian clubs to send young players to train in the most iconic country of rugby league.
He has specific and concrete ideas about how the UK can help French Rugby League: “British expats can create clubs in France and shouldn’t be afraid of doing so; in France there are many territories where rugby league can grow without the competition of union; North, East, Val de Loire, Bourgogne Franche-Comté, and the Great Paris is so vast!
“Brits can help us with exchanges, they possess the required expertise to help us improve.”
Vidal also extends a hand to foreign clubs which would be interested by playing his newly created rugby school. As he underlines, “We’re in expansion, but we are a rugby league school with a solid and sufficient number of registered kids to play games in Great Paris”.
If you want to contact this very motivated convert, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, the French revolution is not for this season.
But French Rugby League remains what it often is on the pitch; unpredictable, lively, potentially able to reinvent itself and to offer surprises. A surprise like the historic tour of Kenya (achieving victories by 78-6 and 108-4) or the future tour of the wheelchair national team to Australia. Or the arrival of Olivier Dubois, another rugby league outsider almost the same age as a Vidal above, as the head of Toulouse Olympique. Not to mention the first French man to win a Golden Boot (Jérémy Bourson, wheelchair category) and the two French women the first ever nominated for that prize in the women’s category (Lauréane Biville and Elisa Akpa).
But while everyone will look at Las Vegas soon for the launch of the NRL season, the international rugby league community had better stop playing Roulette with the rebound of French Rugby League as they do each season.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)