Written by Stuart McLennan
The UK grand finals will carry a heavy French flavour this weekend when Catalans take on reigning champions St Helens in the Super League decider at Old Trafford on Saturday while Toulouse will battle Featherstone in the Championship Grand Final (Million Pound Game) at Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday.
It will round off what has been a positive year for French rugby league with the energetic and ambitious Luc Lacoste taking over as Federation President, France seemingly over the line to host the 2025 World Cup and Catalans fullback Sam Tomkins recently being awarded the ‘Man of Steel’.
Everything Rugby League spoke with Steve Brady from Catalan Media for an insight into the current mood around Rugby à XIII in the south of France.
Steve, a journalist and lifelong rugby league fan originally from Wigan, moved with his wife Denise (also a rugby league fan), five years ago to live outside of Perpignan and set up an English language news agency. While his agency is independent of the Catalan Dragons, they work closely with everyone at the club.
𝗔̀ 𝟴𝟬 𝗺𝗶𝗻𝘂𝘁𝗲𝘀 𝗱𝗲 𝗿𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗿𝗲𝗿 𝗱𝗮𝗻𝘀 𝗹'𝗵𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗼𝗶𝗿𝗲.
© Junior VAIVAI
— Toulouse Olympique XIII (@TOXIII) October 6, 2021
With two French clubs in their respective grand finals for the first time it’s no surprise to hear Brady confirm this is a huge and historic moment for rugby league in France.
“It means everything, it has never happened before and for it to be on the same weekend is simply incredible! We will be at both games and cannot wait,” Brady excitedly told Everything Rugby League.
“After 16 years of positive growth by the Dragons, a big city team like Toulouse now feels confident enough to go for the top flight and the possibility of a Dragons-Olympique derby has got fans over here in a frenzy.
“In all seriousness, this could be the springboard the game needs for a renaissance. Rugby union is king in France but when Toulouse start rolling, the Treizistes will rise again.”
The ripple effect of either team winning their respective matches is enormous. Catalans are potentially Super League champions for the first time ever while Toulouse are 80 minutes away from promotion to the top tier Super League competition.
“Both teams are capable of winning, Toulouse is more likely to do so. I have every confidence in Catalans, the team is the most balanced and organised ever and with Jimmy Maloney they have a proven match-winner who has chosen to stay on and play rugby league in the French championship next year.
“Saints are a great side but I think, especially if Sam Tomkins plays (injured knee), we will have their measure.”
With the unprecedented success of French rugby league at club level, Brady is confident this can boost the fortunes of the national team while being a catalyst for an increase in participation at the grass roots level.
“It’s only natural that an increase in standards at club level will translate to improvements in the national side. Catalans coach Steve McNamara has revolutionised the junior/reserves set-up in Perpignan and the results are already coming through with Arthur Mourgue, Cesar Rouge, Matthieu Laguerre, Joe Chan and Romain Franco impressing in the first team this year. French captain Ben Garcia has blossomed into a brilliant player so the future’s good for France.
“I have no numbers but the appearance on French TV of Catalans and Toulouse in big finals in front of big crowds can’t do any harm in encouraging young players to take up the game. League is only really popular in the far south of France but work is being done by the new FFRXIII President Luc Lacoste to stimulate more junior interest in non-traditional areas of the country.”
Speaking of Luc Lacoste there is a feeling amongst rugby league fans that the new President is just the tonic French rugby league has been searching for after the game in France has looked ‘pale’ at times. Brady agrees wholeheartedly with the assessment.
𝗟𝗲𝘀 𝗷𝗼𝘂𝗲𝘂𝗿𝘀 𝘀𝗼𝗻𝘁 𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗻𝗱𝘂𝘀 𝗰𝗲 𝗷𝗲𝘂𝗱𝗶 𝗮̀ 𝟭𝟭𝗵𝟭𝟱 𝗮̀ 𝗹'𝗮𝗲́𝗿𝗼𝗽𝗼𝗿𝘁 𝗱𝗲 𝗣𝗲𝗿𝗽𝗶𝗴𝗻𝗮𝗻.
Nous invitons tous les supporters à venir les encourager avant leur départ pour Manchester pic.twitter.com/B2FYU3QdbN
— Dragons Catalans (@DragonsOfficiel) October 6, 2021
“I met him for the first time at the weekend and was immediately bowled over by his passion for the sport. He has energy and intelligence, brilliant business and political connections and because he is from a rugby union background he is free of any ancient issues within League. French RL has been riven by division in the past and Lacoste is on a mission to heal the rifts. Because he doesn’t come from any historic faction he is the perfect man for the job and most people are very impressed with his progress, when you consider he only took over in December and has dealt with a heart attack in the process!”
Despite his short time in the role Lacoste looks to have pulled off a major victory already with all signs pointing to France hosting the World Cup in 2025.
“A return to the birthplace of the very first Rugby League World Cup in 1954 would be an incredible springboard for the game. On top of the successes of Catalans and Toulouse, the timing of this event couldn’t be better, with a genuine potential to put the game back in the headlines of national newspapers and TV reports.”
Vive la France!