THIS year marks a decade since a regular French presence was established in Super League and few would argue that, on the whole, the experiment has been a success.
Understandably, there were those with reservations about the wisdom of parachuting the Perpignan-based team straight into the top flight – particularly after the failure of the Paris Saint-Germain side during the early years of summer rugby.
But after finishing bottom of the pile in their first season – staying up thanks to a three-year exemption from relegation – the Catalans have gone from strength to strength and, at the time of writing, find themselves in the top four of Super League.
They were swiftly followed by Toulouse Olympique joining the Championship in 2009 in the hope of earning a license to play in Super League during the period of franchising.
Ultimately, they did not achieve that aim and returned to the French domestic league in 2012, but are now back in the English professional set-up in Kingston Press League One, so far outscoring their opponents 192-6 ahead of this weekend’s clash with high-flying Rochdale Hornets.
It is a move which has not been universally welcomed, even in France. Limoux president Laurent Moreno – among other gripes – hit out at the country’s governing body, the FFR XIII, over Toulouse’s switch earlier this year and was quoted as asking: “Is it the role of the president of the Federation to promote the sending of a French team to England?”
Whether the move can be harnessed to ensure some long-term benefits for the 13-man code in France, particularly with regards to strengthening the flat-lining national team, remains to be seen.
Yet what the presence of the Catalans and Toulouse playing in the Northern Hemisphere’s top domestic league structure does do is further strengthen the bonds between England and France that go right back to rugby league’s formative years across the Channel.
THE first glimpse the French public got of rugby league came in December 1933, when 5,000 curious spectators showed up to Stade Pershing in Paris for an exhibition game between England and Australia.
Organised in collaboration with Australian administrator Harry Sunderland, The RFL and disaffected French rugby union administrators, the match proved somewhat lopsided as the Kangaroos ran out 63-13 victors.
Nevertheless, the initial response was positive – no doubt being partly helped by French rugby aficionados being starved of international competition since their country was suspended from union’s Five Nations in 1931 amid concerns over violent play and allegations of payments being made to players in breach of strict amateur rules.
The French Rugby League was founded the following year, with former union international Jean Galia captaining the national side as they toured England in the spring of 1934.
A brutal, by modern standards, schedule of six games in 15 days produced five defeats and one win, although even in those losses the team showed themselves to be competitive.
Opening with a 25-17 loss at Leeds, the French pioneers were then beaten 30-27 by Wigan, 32-16 by an RLF select XIII at Wilderspool, 19-17 by London Highfield and 35-13 by Salford before closing the tour with a 26-23 win over Hull.
The first international match between England and France followed in Paris on April 15 and although England won that encounter 32-21, a 15-15 draw in the inaugural European Championship the following year showed the progress Les Chanticleers had made.
At club level, the links between the two nations continued as well. Indeed, it was prominent British politician and RFL honorary president Edward Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby who donated the trophy which would become the prize given out for winning France’s domestic cup competition.
The Lord Derby Cup was first used for a one-off game between then-Challenge Cup holders Castleford and US Lyon-Villeurbanne in 1935, with the French side triumphing.
Since then, the competition of the same name has been contested each year – barring World War II and 1981, when the final was cancelled due to a brawl which caused the Championship final to be abandoned after six minutes the week before – and the trophy is still given out to the winners this day.
FOLLOWING the end of the Second World War, France and administrator Paul Barriere were instrumental in the formation of what is now called the RLIF and the first Rugby League World Cup, which was held in the country in 1954.
And although the prominence of the French national team has diminished since those heady days of the post-war era, there have been sporadic matches between them and the Home Nations outside of World Cups.
At club level, the first time French sides regularly got the chance to test themselves against their English counterparts came in the 1992-93 Regal Trophy, with The RFL admitting two of them each year until the competition was axed in 1996.
That paved the way for French teams to be included in the Challenge Cup as well, while the original plans for Super League included a Toulouse-based team alongside what would become Paris Saint-Germain.
Although PSG memorably won the first match of rugby league’s new era against Sheffield Eagles, their time in Super League was not particularly successful – partly due to the club’s French players being signed only on loan from teams playing in the domestic Championship and being expected to turn out for their parent clubs as well.
The first French team to make a mark in an English competition were Toulouse on their improbable run to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup in 2005, which included a 40-24 win over crisis-hit Widnes Vikings in the last eight.
Catalans Dragons went one better two years later, reaching the first final back at the rebuilt Wembley Stadium. The defining moment of their run was a see-saw semi-final against Wigan Warriors, where New Zealand legend Stacey Jones inspired them to a 37-24 victory.
Sadly, there was to be no fairy tale ending as St Helens ran out 30-8 victors on a baking hot August afternoon in north-west London. Nevertheless, the Catalans showed they were to be taken seriously.
Steady improvements have followed to the point where they have regularly featured in the play-offs, although a maiden Grand Final appearance remains out of reach for now.
Toulouse’s start, albeit against some of the weaker non-heartland teams in League One, shows they too could be serious contenders and the 10-8 win over Championship leaders Leigh Centurions underlined their credentials.
They may not have won many fans with their attitude, being perceived as seeing themselves to be slumming it with the lower division sides prior to their inevitable march into Super League.
However, if they can establish themselves somewhere in the league system as the Catalans have, it can only do more to strengthen rugby league in France – not to mention the bond these two nations share in the sport.