The catalyst for the birth of Rugby League in France was a match played in Paris between England and Australia in 1933. The Australians won easily in front of over 5,000 but the seed had been sown and was further cultivated by angry French Rugby Union players protesting against ‘les Bleus’ suspension from the Five Nations. As a result they formed the ‘Ligue Francaise de Rugby a XIII’ in 1934 and, within five years, there were 155 clubs.
The onset of World War II saw Rugby League suffer at the hands of the collaborating Vichy regime with assets seized and players punished but French RL emerged as a stronger entity after the close of hostilities and their officials actively pushed for an international World Cup tournament.
Their lobbying paid off in 1954 as France hosted the first ever Rugby World Cup and proceeded to reach the final where they lost 16-12 to Great Britain. Since then the French have taken part in every World Cup and repeated their second place finish in 1968 after losing to Australia 20-2 in the Final.
In recent tournaments the French have failed to shine. In 1995 they finished bottom of their pool after defeats against Wales and Samoa. Five years later they beat Samoa and South Africa to book a place in the last eight where they were thrashed by New Zealand and in 2008 they failed to progress despite beating Scotland. A defeat to Fiji cost them dear and once again left them bottom of their pool.
Rugby League has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late with Catalans Dragons taking part in the Super League and Toulouse joining the Co-operative Championship. Catalans’ appearance in the 2007 Challenge Cup Final combined with the regular participation in that tournament of French clubs has been another driver of growth.
Rugby League is now the fastest growing sport in France although much of the interest is centred around the south of the country. The French Rugby League Championships and its top tier Elite One league features around 110 clubs with over 30,000 registered players.
Nation Fact File
Area: 674,843 square km
Population: 65 million
Domestic Competition - Elite One Championship
The French Rugby League Championship began in 1934 but the current name and format were adopted in 2002 when the first game commenced in April. Currently the league features 11 clubs.
Since then the league has strengthened both on and off the pitch with members of the French national team playing in the league and growing attendances - some derby matches now get crowds of 3,000. Recently the league has grown internationally too with players from Morocco, Serbia, Russia and Algeria. The season usually runs from October to April so that fans can also attend Catalans Dragons matches. Racing Club Albi have withdrawn from the 2008/9 season following financial problems and Toulouse Olympique have accepted an invitation to play in the British Championships from the 2009 season. Sporting Olympique Avignon have been promoted from LER2 to make up a league of 10 teams.