Treiziste Diary: The national newspaper giving rare coverage of French Rugby League

The national press in France has traditionally been a firmly closed door to rugby league, but are there signs that could be changing?

PARISIAN newsrooms embody many things for French treizistes. 

They are a target: France remains somehow a centralised state when it comes to media. All the major national media groups are based in the French capital.

To get closer to them, the French RL Federation even tried to relocate the Men’s Championship Grand Final; it was played twice at Charlety Stadium at the end of the nineties.

But it was a failure.

Mainly because the majority of Treizistes were reluctant to leave their strongholds for a weekend. In France, there has never been a ‘Wembley effect’ as you’ve had in the UK for the Challenge Cup for decades.

Parisian media are also synonymous with bad memories for people of my generation or older. Treizistes do remember the biased coverage of L’Équipe when Paris Saint Germain were playing the Super League in 1996 and 1997. And that famous picture of PSG XIII playing in front of an empty grandstand, whereas in fact, the attendance was much more than decent at that time with a peak of 17,000 for some games.

So, no use saying that Parisian newsrooms are the object of all fantasies here. 

But to be honest, who knows actually what’s going on at the headquarters of the most famous national newspapers in Paris, and what’s in the mind of a renowned French sport journalist nowadays?

What is sure is that Paris media have become a terra incognita for Treizistes, and let’s say also, a closed world. An impregnable fortress, also? 

That had been the situation until some of us noticed that, from time to time, some articles were published about rugby league in a national newspaper, and not just any newspaper: in Le Figaro. 

Le Figaro is the equivalent of The Times in the UK, a conservative and respected newspaper. In contrast, which may seem funny to English readers, Libération – another respected newspaper, the equivalent of The Guardian – never covers rugby league, and barely union, and when it does, it’s sometimes to flame it! (see Treiziste Diary in RLW issue 490).

The author of these articles in Le Figaor is Arnaud Coudry (pictured top, centre), a 46-year-old journalist. Also a former junior union player who grew up in Ussel and played for the local union club (the US Ussel). Don’t look for the name of the city in your memories, that area (close to the centre of France) has been abandoned for decades by French rugby league.  

Coudry started his career in 2000 just after a few vain attempts by the French RL Federation to stay in touch with the national media. 

I asked him how he found out about rugby league.

“This is thanks to my job, I discovered rugby league belatedly. I wrote a few articles about the code; about the World Cups, the Catalans Dragons and rugby league in France. Not many, actually. I mainly cover rugby union. 

“Since then, I have been following the Catalans Dragons… from afar. 

“But I realised how much rugby league has contributed to rugby union; it has brought the off—loads, the kicking game and defensive system. Twice in the past, the France rugby union national team defence coach was a former rugby league player: David Ellis, and then Shaun Edwards.”

This feels ironic as our code’s DNA is an offensive game, a solid defence being just the least we can expect from a rugby league player! An obvious skill, just like being able to pass the ball efficiently.

I wondered if he was able to write freely about rugby league in Le Figaro?

He reassured me: “I’m free to write whatever I want. I just need to inform my supervisors before. They trust me and give me carte blanche.”

I was also anxious to know if his colleagues and him are under pressure of the powerful Union federation or the so-called ‘Ligue de Rugby’ (a false description as they deal with the interests of the professional union clubs).

He insisted not! 

“We don’t receive any pressures; we write whatever we like.”

I can confirm to the readers of Rugby League World that his Figaro union colleague David Reyrat and him don’t pull their punches. Either in their articles or on the social networks. Reyrat was even once expelled from a Union press conference in the early 2000s, because former coach and sport minister Bernard Laporte wasn’t satisfied with an article the Figaro journalist wrote!

But I tried not to beat around the bush and wanted to know if there was anything which prevented Coudry from writing more about rugby league.

“I’m not prejudiced regarding rugby league. But let’s say that there’s more a rugby union culture at Le Figaro. For instance, Franz Reichel (1871-1932, a journalist and a French sports administrator) would write for the newspaper. He even gave his name to a junior Union competition. He covered the first ever France v New Zealand All Blacks game (in 1906). Actually, when there’s a burning topic, or a special event at league, we try to cover it. But we don’t follow rugby league daily as we do for Union.” 

To test him a little bit, I asked him if he would attend and cover this season’s Elite 1 Grand Final, especially, with the season being unpredictable with an impressive Albi and their serious chances to win the competition and break the domination of the Audois clubs. 

“That would be complicated to cover this final. It wouldn’t mean a lot for our readers, who are unfamiliar with rugby league. Maybe if there was something special or original with that game, I would cover it but it would be very complicated as “culturally” we follow rugby union more.”

Coudry couldn’t tell me what he meant by “special”.

The past has showed that mainstream media can be unpredictable. For example, Israel Folau’s short career at the Catalans Dragons did bring some interest at the beginning for the Dragons and our code but despite the hullaballoo in the media, it was almost as if union media regarded him as retired and he went under their radar. That, until his return to playing union, of course!

Meanwhile, the French RL Federation is trying to offer something special with the celebrations of its 90th birthday. But it wasn’t exactly ‘mission accomplished’ with February’s exhibition game between a selection of Elite 1 players and the Catalans Dragons. It was a mismatch with the Dragons defeating a President’s XIII 88-6 in front of just 2,600 spectators at Gilbert Brutus Stadium.

In contrast, for the launch of their 19th season in Super League, the Catalans saw an attendance of 8,876 in the same stadium and victory over Warrington Wolves 16-10.

The “Dracs” (Dragons in Catalan) seem today the only ones to reach the interest of the media and the volatile curiosity of the French public. Something which will be amplified by the multi-media coverage they will benefit this season, thanks to the Super League + streaming platform and their coverage by the internet channel of L’Équipe, remember the ‘bad guys’ at the beginning of this article!

It will be interesting to see if the Men’s France v England test-match played in Toulouse at the end of June will change this situation. The venue is as yet undetermined, it will be either Stade Ernest Wallon or Le Stadium. The second, and bigger venue, would be great news. Because, even if digital media has brought a new deal in communication, my compatriots remain attached to the classic press. Will we see Arnaud Coudry or his colleagues in Toulouse at the pre-game press conference or in the press box?

I doubt it.

If someday they do show up to games like this, it will mean that French rugby league may have achieved something. 

But are we ready to face their sharp questions, as we’re more familiar with the few rare regional journalists who cover our sport with passion and benevolence and who became really rugby league converts? 

I think we are. We may live in the shadow of our embarrassing union cousin, but we have nothing to hide and so many things to offer to the French public. 

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 494 (March 2024)

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