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75 Years of French Rugby League

While it will surely pass without due recognition in Australia, the world's strongest rugby league nation, the 6th of April 2009 marked an important anniversary in the history of the great game of rugby league.
75 Years of French Rugby League
by NRL

While it will surely pass without due recognition in Australia, the world's strongest rugby league nation, the 6th of April 2009 marked an important anniversary in the history of the great game of rugby league.

That date marked 75 years since the creation of the French Rugby League, a sporting body (and a sport) which has suffered greater continual direct and indirect oppression than perhaps any other in the long history of sport.

A sport that was banned outright by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy government in 1941 under the direct influence of members of the French rugby union.

A sport that grew so rapidly between its introduction to France in 1934 until the outbreak of the Second World War that its number of member clubs threatened to outstrip the number of French rugby union clubs within a mere five years.

Rugby union, a sport with a head start of more than fifty years on rugby league in France, would take the opportunity of the darkest years of the 20th Century (less than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese military) to secure its prize: a resolution decreeing the dissolution of a totally independent sporting body, the French Rugby League (19 December 1941).

Despite such odious acts, the French Rugby League has survived for three-quarters of a century, and has outlived many of those who sought its destruction following its introduction to France, when rugby (union) followers opposed to the new code sprinkled pitches with glass and flooded others with water to prevent the playing of exhibition rugby league matches.

The formation of the French Rugby League on 6 April 1934 was the culmination of a number of crucial events which secured the future of the sport in France. In late December 1933, the Australian and Great British Test teams played an exhibition game at Stade Pershing in Paris following development work by both Harry Sunderland on behalf of the Australian Rugby League and the Rugby Football League based in England.

Played in a snow storm, the scintillating football of the Australians triumphed, with a smashing 63-13 victory. The French, so enamoured by the glorious attacking play of both teams, but especially the Australians, chaired victorious Kangaroos captain Dave Brown from the playing field after cheering the game to its conclusion. As events would soon show, amidst the snow drifts of Paris, a new French sport had been born.

Not long after witnessing this match, Jean Galia, a French rugby union international, was moved to organise players for the new rugby movement which had so stirred the capital. Demonstration matches were played throughout the heart of rugby territory (especially in the south of France) and Galia captained a tour of French players to England, where creditable results were recorded against teams hardened in the skills and toughness of the English Rugby League competition (then the dominant club competition in world rugby league).

Since the early days of French rugby league there have been many wonderful years of achievement, such as becoming the first French team of either rugby code to win in England - traditionally seen by the French as the arch enemy (1939) - and recording the first win of any French sporting team at Wembley in London (1949).

Shortly after the latter result, in 1951, the French toured Australia and New Zealand for the first time, trouncing the Australians 2-1 in a three match Test series played before three sell-out crowds (Sydney 60,160; Brisbane 35,000; Sydney 67,009). The tour drew a total of over 450,000 spectators, with games played in every mainland State capital except Adelaide, including Perth and an unofficial fourth Test match in Melbourne (won 34-17 by the French).

The French, expected to be mere spectators against an Australian side which had regained the Ashes for the first time in 30 years the year before, played exquisite rugby league, running the home side ragged - the seven tries to two thrashing handed out in the third Test perhaps best encapsulating their results.

This most amazing tour, still one of the greatest of all French sporting results, was replicated in 1955, when the French, under the brilliant stewardship of captain Jacques Merquey, repeated their 2-1 Test series win over Australia, this time before an even greater number of Australian fans than in 1951.

In the intervening years, the French had hosted the first Rugby League World Cup in 1954, after pushing for its creation for many years. The trophy was eventually lifted by Great Britain in a massive upset, downing the French in Paris 16-12 in a World Cup Final perhaps only matched for sheer quality by the game in which New Zealand became the third country to win the Rugby League World Cup late in 2008.

Since the true glory periods of 1934-1939 and 1945-1960, the French have also had to deal with many desperately poor years as the game struggles to combat the slow strangulation to which it has been subjected by a rugby union dominated French media.

The refusal of the Australian Rugby League to endorse a further Test tour after 1964 - a move which led to the abandonment of French Test tours until 1981, amidst the number of Rugby League World Cup tournaments during the 1970s - was only the first in a series of set backs at international level.

The post-WWII French game briefly experienced the promise of the pre-War years, when settled clubs relying on the fruits of earlier years were able to produce quality players, resulting in excellent results against international opponents. The immense damage caused to the game by the banning of the sport and the consequential impact on playing ranks following the Second World War would eventually prove problematic, as the careers of this generation of players began to peter out at the end of the 1950s.

As a consequence, the passing of time has certainly seen the number of French upsets drop, although results such as the narrow loss in the 1968 World Cup Final to Australia (in Australia) and the surprise defeat of Australia 2-0 in the Test series of 1978 have occurred from time to time.

The French domestic scene, restricted largely to the passion of the French countryside and not the big cities of France, is perhaps a shadow of its immediate post-War glory, when teams from the biggest French cities like Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Paris and Toulouse mixed with the passionate rural teams from Avignon, Carcassonne, Perpignan, Villeneuve and Albi.

This lead directly to the institution of a more European approach to French rugby league, with the successful adaption of Les Catalans to the European Super League and the inclusion of Toulouse in the English National League One competition (presumably with a view to promotion to the Super League within the next few years).

The future for French rugby league certainly appears brighter than it did during some of the darkest years, perhaps best exemplified by the abandonment of the brawling French Championship Final between XIII Catalan and Villeneuve in 1981, and it is hoped that the French will once again marshal their intuitive approach to rugby league and provide stern opposition to the major international powers in the future.

Certainly, results such as Australia's narrow win against France in 2004 suggest that French rugby league maintains its tremendous potential - not surprising for a sport that has had to endure the tumultuous events foisted upon it over the last 75 years.




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