The Forgotten Game – A French Tragedy

By Daniel Andruczyk

A while back I was re-reading one of my great rugby league books, Champaign Rugby [1]. It is an account of what could be described as the Golden age of French Rugby League. But it also hints to one of the greatest tragedies in not only Rugby League but also in sport in general. A tragedy that most Rugby League and Union fans in Australia, Britain and the rest of the Rugby world don’t seem to know about.

Rugby League is a colourful sport, not only on the field but off the field, with its roots solidly in the working class it will always attract its share of controversy and ridicule and always be in the medias eye. But it also has one of the most wonderful, colourful, tragic and triumphant histories in world sport. The best Hollywood producers could not come up with some of the stuff Rugby League has managed to throw our way over 114 glorious years and the French connection is probably one of the most colourful.

In the beginning

Rugby league had two tries at establishing itself in the early part of the 20th century. In 1921/22 the Australians and English wanted to play an exhibition match in Paris and had a stadium booked, but were thwarted by the French Rugby Union who put a ban on the use of any ground for playing “professional Rugby” [2]. The next attempt game in the early 30’s and was more successful.

1933 was an interesting year in the two rugby codes. Violence and professionalism in the ranks of the French Rugby Union saw them kicked out of the 5 Nations. This paved the way for Rugby League to come in and show the French Rugby public an alternative form of Rugby, one with more flair, quicker and harder. Enter Rugby League.

Harry Sunderland, along with the RFL and ARL saw an opportunity for Australia and England to play an exhibition match in Paris at Stade Pershing in Paris. In front of thousands of curious spectators and snow the Australian has a resounding triumph, 63-13. But what was more important was that the French public were won over. Jean Galia who would be one of Frances rugby league greats said this of seeing Rugby League for the first time

“It is splendid, splendid viewing, masterly combinations, inversions of attacks, all this is Rugby with XIII.In the other Rugby it is rarely seen.”

A tour was organised quickly and in 1934 ex French Union star Jean Galia organised a French tour of the English clubs. Upon their return it spurred on many clubs to either switch from Union to League or to form new clubs out right. Quickly an international was scheduled between the English and French and in front of 20,000 at the Buffalo Velodrome England had a close win 32-21 [2].

Eventually as the game grew in France it closely rivalled, if not was bigger than, Rugby Union and in 1939 saw the inaugural triumph of French sport – The defeat of England on home soil (there is some speculation if this is of just the rugby codes or of any sport) [2,3] beating the English 12-9 at St Helens. Also by 1937 regular test were being played against the Australians.

A Shameful Act

September 1 1939 saw the start of the most destructive global military conflict in the history of man. The Germans under the control of the NAZIS invaded Poland and over the next few years went on to invade and capture countries from North Africa to Scandinavia, from France to the gates of Moscow.

Its a war that would have had an impact on all sports in terms of their players having to go serve their countries and give their lives to fight for freedom. But a low shameful act in Vichy France had a particularly severe influence on French Rugby League.

French Rugby League was banned as a sport (along with others) under the Vichy regime but research by several people [2-5] uncovered that under the guidance of several Rugby Union leaders whom were closely linked with Petain and his NAZI collaborating regime in Vichy, they had a direct influence on this decision – Yes that’s right it was banned as a sport, the fields and stadiums confiscated and GIVEN to Rugby Union [5]. Even down to the uniforms, they were taken away, never to be given back. This invariably saved Union, which by 1939 was clearly running second to League, many of the great clubs like Carcassonne and Narbonne has switched over to the FRL. Even the name “rugby” was banned in its use to do with Rugby League.

After the war was ended the Ban was lifted by General de Gaulle but these assets that were confiscated were never given back and the banning of the the use of the name rugby was enforced until 1991! During these dark times many of the clubs reverted back to Union and so it grew strong once again on the back of the work these clubs had done. Some remained and indeed formed the base of what was the Golden age of French Rugby League through the 1950’s.

However the damage by the ban had been done and once that generation had retired the full impact of what had been done started top be felt… though on occasion the French did provide some outstanding results.

Champagne Rugby

This leads me to my book that I was reading and it entail the exploits of Puig Aubert and his troops who left France an unknown ragtag bunch and returned World Champions and adorned by 100,000 in the streets of Marseilles and in the book there is a truly remarkable picture of the crowds.

No I can see a few of you cock your head and say “Ha! France World Champions?!” Yes up until 1954 when the inaugural world cup was help the world champions were crowned over a 4 year cycle and it was given to the nation with the best record home and away against the major playing nations (this being France, England, Australia and New Zealand). France had had good wins against England but on that fateful trip in 1951 ended up with series wins against the more fancied Aussies and a one point loss to the Kiwis.

1951 Frances Australian Tour summary

Year Date Team 1 Team 2 Venue Crowd
1951 11 June Australia 15 France 26 Sydney 60160
1951 29 June Australia 23 France 11 Brisbane 35000
1951 21 July Australia 35 France 14 Sydney 67009
1951 04 August New Zealand 16 France 15 Auckland 20414
1951 18 August Australia 34 France 17 Melbourne 4460

This gave them the best home and away record of any of the 4 nations and so they earned the title of World Champions and took home the Goodwill trophy. This trophy is truly a monumental piece or work and is so large weighs that you really do need to be a Rugby League player to lift it. At 1.76 m by 1.34 m it has been described as a “monument to bad taste”. [1]

The French Connection

Despite all this we have the French to thank for one of the greatest feats our sport has. The World Cup. The Rugby League World Cup is the oldest one of the rugby codes and is the second oldest of any sport. It was the French from the start whom pushed for it much to the displeasure of the English and Aussies at the time, but in the end they came round and the inaugural World Cup was played in France with the English taking the spoils against the French 16-12. The French were also important in planting the seeds of Rugby League in other countries like Italy, but without support from many of the other nations the sport collapsed only to be revived nearly 50 years later.

Let us not Forget

So will we ever see any compensation, I would hope so, but probably won’t. But I think its important that what Rugby Union did (and other acts through history) is not forgotten, actually this kind of behaviour has not changed. As recently as 2007 and 2009 there have been instances where Rugby Union has banned players and teams from playing League, despite the fact that they can play any other games or other than Union (as long as its not league).

Since those golden days France  has gone on to have some lean years the last shining light being 1979 when they defeated the Australians 2-0 on home soil. The seeds of this being in the acts of 1941 the quality of younger generations wasn’t quite there and its only been in the last 10 years that the French have started to rise once more with the Catalan Dragons, Toulouse and the increased level of the LER. If reports are top be believed then the 34,000 registered players and 150 clubs [6] the sport has managed to survive and thrive in the face of adversity.

  1. “Champagne Rugby – The Golden Age of French Rugby League” By Henri Garcia, London League Publications ISBN: 978-1-903659-34-2
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