It was a seminal moment for rugby league and for European sport. Last October Catalans Dragons made history by becoming the first non-British team to reach the Super League Grand Final.
In the end, they fell agonisingly short. But as “Les Dracs” left the pitch at Old Trafford after a two-point defeat to reigning champions St Helens, their very presence in European rugby league’s biggest match represented so much more than simply becoming the first foreign team to reach that stage, although that alone was a huge accomplishment.
Faced with the ever-changing disruption of international Covid travel restrictions and Brexit – all non-British players and their supporters suddenly needed a passport – actually getting through the season was remarkable. To then play in the final overturned pre-season odds of 20-1. The game was broadcast live on French TV and Emmanuel Macron sent a message of good luck.
But their achievement and its symbolism runs deeper than getting to the final of a tournament. In 2000, when the Dragons were formed in the French department of Pyrénées-Orientales, an area once called Northern Catalonia, French rugby league was in a parlous state. Infighting among its governing bodies was matched by actual fighting on the field. It had disappeared from television channels, its ageing audience was dwindling and its national team became so feeble that it lost to minnows Lebanon in the last World Cup.
Something had to be done, and quickly. In Perpignan, the world’s second-biggest Catalan-speaking city, two of French rugby league’s most famous clubs, Treize Catalan and AS St Estève merged. The new club, Catalans Dragons, soon became French champions and then applied to join the British Super League in 2005.
They were following the lead of Auckland Warriors, whose entry in 1995 from the weaker New Zealand rugby league into the powerful Australian competition was a catalyst for the sport in New Zealand – 13 years later the Kiwis beat Australia to win the Rugby League World Cup, the first time in their history. Dragons chairman Bernard Guasch knew it was a wing and a prayer, but perhaps the same could happen in Europe. Maybe French rugby league could be rescued.
In 2018 the Dragons served intent when they won Britain’s premier knockout competition, the Challenge Cup. Now four years later and two decades after their formation, Guasch’s team sit atop the pile (well almost).
But for long-time rugby league watchers in France, there was more at stake. Far more. For decades, theirs has been a sport under siege, not just from its own ineptitude, but from its bigger sporting cousin: rugby union. If you think the antipathy that once existed between the world’s two rugby codes in Britain, Australia or New Zealand marks a sporting nadir then visit France and think again. For it was here the battles between the two were the hardest and dirtiest.
In 1934 the upstart, newly popular rugby league game had taken France by storm. Rugby union clubs were switching codes in hordes, the athleticism and professionalism of rugby league appealing to players and spectators alike. French rugby union was a leaking ship. Then came the Second World War and the Nazi puppet state of Vichy. Establishment rugby union figures in the German-backed government grasped the opportunity to eradicate rugby league which was closely aligned with the resistance movement. Its assets were seized, its offices torched and, on 19 December 1941, even playing the sport was banned in a decree signed by chief of state Marshal Philippe Pétain.
Persecution did not end following liberation. Rugby league was effectively banned from schools because the government offered no qualification to allow physical education instructors to teach it. The sport wasn’t even allowed to use the name ‘rugby’ – for decades rugby league was known only as ‘jeu à treize’ or ‘game of thirteen’.
But treize refused to die, especially in south-east France; Languedoc, the Aude, Roussillon and Corbiéres. Its temples are towns like Limoux, astride the river Aude and birthplace of the world’s first sparkling wine, or Villeneuve-sur-Lot, home to the first rugby league club in France and of Jean Galia, pioneer of treize whose statue stands in Ille-sur-Têt. Then there’s Carcassonne, famous for its medieval Cité, but known to treizistes as the home of Puig-Aubert, or ‘Pipette’, the chain-smoking star of France’s 1950s Australian tours. And finally there is Perpignan, deep in Catalonia, playing the game that through its years of oppression became linked with Catalonian nationalism, the supporters’ sang et or flags swirling dervish-like at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
In France, watching rugby league is as much a political statement as a sporting one. In the grandstands you may hear talk of the government investigation into the actions of the Vichy era, and the hopes that now the Dragons have competed for Europe’s biggest club prize the French national team’s fortunes may be transformed. There was jubilation in January when prime minister Jean Castex announced, on the back of the game’s revival in the country, that the 2025 World Cup will be played in France. To receive government recognition is almost unprecedented. This year’s World Cup tournament in England will measure just how far the national team has to progress to match its two appearances in previous World Cup Finals: 1954 and 1968. And there’s even more to celebrate. Local rivals Toulouse Olympique also acceded to the British Super League by winning last season’s play-off against Featherstone Rovers. There is talk of the subsequent derby match attracting 30,000 spectators, attendances not seen in France since the 1950s.
Yet, in Britain, there is still antipathy towards the Dragons. While they are many progressive supporters’ second team, more insular individuals complain they bring no fans to away matches (smaller clubs rely heavily on income taken at the gate) and that France is too far to travel for an away game in a sport where professional English clubs are mostly clustered around the M62 motorway. The same accusations have been directed at London’s two professional clubs, such is the inherent parochialism. Many rugby league supporters voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.
But perhaps for once this weekend narrow-minded provincialism can be set aside as the 2022 season kicks off with an eagerly awaited repeat of last year’s final. Twenty years ago, French rugby league was on its knees. Now the Dragons have transformed the sporting landscape – all their matches this season will be live on TV and season ticket sales for both the Dragons and Toulouse have gone through the roof. Author and rugby league historian Mike Rylance has described rugby à treize as France’s forbidden game that refused to die… Seems like it’s living up to the epithet.