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When Vichy abolished rugby league

France might be rugby league minnows – as their World Cup campaign has demonstrated – but, as MICK O’HARE explains, the sport in the country has had to fight for its very survival

You don’t need to know much about rugby to know that the two codes of the game – rugby league and rugby union – have enjoyed what might at best be described as a fractious relationship since the former lurched into the sporting firmament in August 1895.

Formed in Huddersfield in response to claims from working class players for compensation for missing work on Saturdays to play, rugby league was always considered the pariah game by those running the rugby union establishment from which it split.

In the United Kingdom and elsewhere players could, until union itself began openly paying players in 1995, be banned from union for life for even playing a game of amateur rugby league in the park.

And while a truce of sorts now exists between the codes and their supporters, some old wounds run deep. Yet nowhere did the rancour between the two cut deeper than in France during the Second World War. For there, the difference between playing and supporting one code or the other could mark you out as collaborator or patriot.

It’s often said that watching rugby league in France is as much a political statement as it is a sporting one. If you think the historical antipathy between the two rugby codes in Britain, Australia or New Zealand marks a sporting nadir then visit France and think again.

It wasn’t merely life bans and enmity as in the rest of the world. For it was here that the battles fought between the codes were the hardest and dirtiest. And that’s because France remains the only country where the entire sport of rugby league was banned by law.

If today it seems astonishing that a whole game could be outlawed, the background to the ban needs to be understood. In 1930 only rugby union was played in France. The younger version of the game, born in the north of England, had spread to New Zealand in Australia in the early 20th century, but the union authorities had taken steps to stop it growing.

It was outlawed in the armed forces and places of higher education, and anybody caught playing – or in some notorious cases even watching – it would receive a life ban from the union authorities.

However, in 1931 the French national rugby union team was prohibited from playing internationals against England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, ostensibly because they considered French players too violent but also because they were breaking union’s strict amateur ethos and paying players; anathema to the Corinthian powers ruling union in the British Isles.

Starved of international union competition, the French began to turn to néo rugby. League, or rugby á treize in France, is played with 13 players, two fewer than union, and its faster, more open rules and playing style appealed to French players and supporters.

In 1934 the upstart rugby began taking France by storm, with union clubs and players switching codes in hordes. In 1939 the French rugby league team became the first French team in any sport to beat England in England and became European champions. French rugby union was under siege.

Then came the Second World War, and the French Nazi puppet state of Vichy. Establishment rugby union figures in the German-backed government grasped the opportunity to eradicate rugby league, which was also politically associated with the left-wing Popular Front party, the wartime resistance, and also – echoing down to the 21st century – Catalan nationalism. As Professor Tony Collins of De Montfort University and rugby historian of both codes wrote in The Oval World ‘Vichy’s settling of scores with rugby league was not just ideological. It was personal’.

League’s assets were seized, its offices ransacked and, on December 19, 1941, actually playing the sport was banned in a decree signed by Vichy’s head of state Marshal Pétain.

League players were encouraged to return to union so that, according to French Union Federation president Dr Albert Ginesty ‘their moral and technical re-education could take place’. Vichy’s minister for family and youth, Jean Ybarnégaray said of the ‘morally decrepit’ sport that ‘rugby league’s life is over. It will be deleted’.

As French-based, British journalist Mike Rylance, author of The Forbidden Game, wrote: ‘The destruction of rugby league was the perfect example of how a right-wing political regime might express its reactionary, vengeful and essentially petty nature’.

But as Robert Fassolette, one-time organiser of Treize Actif, a group that has lobbied the French government demanding reparations for the Vichy ban and subsequent post-war proscription in French schools, has said: ‘Barely anyone in France is aware of the extraordinary fact that the Vichy regime actually stopped people from playing a sport. It was simply abolished and its stadiums taken over by rugby union.’

Yet despite being on the right side of history, persecution did not end following liberation. Vichy officials moved into posts in the new free French government. Rugby league was effectively banned from schools because PE teachers could not earn a qualification to teach it.

The sport wasn’t even allowed to use the name ‘rugby’, as rugby union people transferred their dominance to the postwar government. For decades rugby league was known only as jeu à treize or ‘game of thirteen’.

But still treize refused to die, especially in south-east France: Languedoc, through the Aude and Roussillon. Its heartlands are towns like Limoux, astride the twisting river Aude, and birthplace of the world’s first sparkling wine, despite Champagne’s competing claims, or Villeneuve-sur-Lot, from whence hailed Jean Galia the player credited with bringing rugby league to France, and captain of the first touring team to England. Villeneuve is the home of the first rugby league club in France and Galia’s statue stands in Ille-sur-Têt.

To the south-east is Carcassonne famous for its fortified medieval Cité and its cassoulet, but known to treizistes as the home of Puig-Aubert, or ‘Pipette’, the chain-smoking hero of French tours to Australia in the 1950s. He too has a statue, outside the Stade Albert Domec where AS Carcassonne, once France’s most successful club, plays.

Visit Chez Felix on Place Carnot, where supporters and players congregate post-match, or stay at Hotel Terminus alongside the station, traditional home to visiting international teams. And onto Perpignan, deep in Catalonia, home to the sang i or, the Catalan name for the blood and gold shirts of Union Treiziste Catalan, the biggest club name in French rugby league.

Spend the morning viewing the restored 13th-century Palace of the Kings of Majorca, then walk the sun-drenched Avenue de l’Aérodrome to Stade Gilbert Brutus. UTC’s first team, now going under the moniker of the Catalan Dragons, and playing in the British Super League, aim to return French rugby league to its 1950s glory days when the national team defeated Australia twice on Aussie soil, a never-repeated event.

The Dragons recently secured their place in the Super League and the national team has just been competing in the World Cup down-under, sadly with less success than their 1950s counterparts. Ignominious defeat to Lebanon in the opening match of the competition showed how far the national team has sunk in recent years.

Renowned rugby union writer Frank Keating once opined that as soon as rugby union turned openly professional (as it did in 1995 after pretending for years it hadn’t) then rugby league would have no raison d’être, it would cease to exist. His error was to have no understanding of what drove rugby league. Certainly its supporters think it’s the better of the two codes, but in places like Perpignan, Carcassone and Narbonne in the south east of France, there is history, painful history, and an imperative not to forget.

And if it is true that in France, watching rugby league is as much a political statement as a sporting one, take your seat, watch and listen. There will be talk of Catalan independence across the Spanish border, whether Brexit will mean French and British clubs will have difficulty exchanging players or indeed whether the Dragons will still be able to compete in a British league.And some of the older treizistes will, if questioned, talk angrily of the years when league was banned and ‘rugby’ was a word they weren’t allowed to use to describe their sport. There will be hope that the Catalan Dragons will soon be joined in the British Super League by Toulouse Olympique, also rapidly rising through the British leagues.

There will certainly be concerns that the richer French Rugby Union will continue to poach league’s best young talent.

And while younger fans care less about Vichy and more about taking selfies with the players, there is still a sense of passionate ownership about the sport, no longer found in, say, football.

The New European has recently been running a feature suggesting that if Brexit were a work of art, it would resemble various egregious examples. Turn that right on its head. If remoaning were a sport it would be rugby league. It’s not going to go away. And, after a while spent among the treizistes of a beautiful part of southern France, maybe you’ll realise why it is the game that refused to die…

Mick O’Hare is a writer and editor for New Scientist magazine and is the author of Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? He also freelances as a rugby league writer

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