FRENCH LEAGUE FANS DARE TO DREAM

In 1948 a Catalans Regional XIII humiliated the touring Australian Rugby League side 20-5 at Perpignan in France. Catalans did it again in 1963, against a Kangaroo touring side rated by some critics as the best of all time, this time getting home 15-11.

On October 9, 2021, the Catalans Dragons club side will make history when they play defending champions, St Helens in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford, Manchester.

My wife, Marie and I had the pleasure of watching Catalans defeat Warrington 20-14 in the 2018 Challenge Cup final at London’s Wembley Stadium, and there is nothing we would like more than to be at Old Trafford, but that won’t be happening, for obvious reasons.

Incredibly, there could be two French teams in the Super League next season, with Toulouse Olympique to contest the Championship final against Featherstone Rovers at Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse, on October 10.

I am full of admiration for Featherstone, but it is a municipality with a population of around 16,000, compared with 500,000 in Toulouse. The French city has sponsors lining up to get behind a side in Super League. I can’t see Featherstone attracting new money to a game, badly in need of it.

Toulouse’s rugby union side leads the Top 14 ladder, and while the league club would never challenge it for popularity, regular visits to the city by the likes of St Helens, Wigan, Hull and Castleford would certainly enliven the rivalry between the two codes. Toulouse Olympique are coached by Frenchman, Sylvain Houles, while Australian, James Webster is in charge of Featherstone.

Catalans’ owner, Bernard Guasch is on record as saying that the arrival of Toulouse in Super League would be good for the game in France.

“A derby game would create little stories and rivalries between our two sides and stimulate support,” he told Perpignan based journalist, Steve Brady in 2018.

After Catalans won the Challenge Cup, the team was feted in the Perpignan city centre, before moving on to Gilbert Brutus Stadium, where players spent three hours signing autographs for fans.

I have covered rugby league matches in Toulouse and Perpignan, for ‘The Courier-Mail’, and also visited Catalan Dragons headquarters. Marie and I have stayed with the family of Eloi Pelissier, who previously played for Catalans, and is now in the Toulouse squad. Rugby League in France is a minor game, but its devotees and supporters are as staunch as any in the world.

I’m not sure what impact two Super League sides would have on France’s Elite 1 competition. Hopefully it will be positive, and teams such as Lezignan, Carcassonne, Limoux, Avignon, Albi, Villefranche, St Gaudens and Villeneuve-sur-Lot can thrive, given there will be pathways to ‘the top’ for French players, in their own country.

Rugby League in France enjoyed a golden period in the 1950s, after the French proved more than competitive against the 1948-49 Kangaroos, despite losing the two Tests, in Marseilles (29-10) and Bordeaux (10-0).

One of the stars of the great French sides was Elie Brousse, who played for the Catalans regional side against the 1948 Kangaroos. Brousse was capped 30 times between 1946 and 1953, and is regarded as France’s finest ever second rower.

He was man who stood no nonsense. In a brutal match against Toowoomba on the 1951 tour of Australia, he refused to put up with the legendary Duncan Hall’s attempts at intimidation, and they were both sent off, after exchanging punches. Hall had been a member of the 1948-49 Kangaroo touring side.

The Catalans’ victories over the Kangaroos in 1948 and 1964 are celebrated to this day. But I sense that nothing will compare to a win in the Super League Grand Final.

The Catalans side which defeated the 1948-49 Kangaroos

The 2018 Challenge Cup, won by Catalans’ Dragons

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