By John Davidson, Date: 20/10/14
A quarter-final finish at last year’s World Cup and a strong showing in Super League this season from Catalans Dragons has French rugby league in good shape. John Davidson reports.
France were heavily tipped as favourites for the 2014 European Championships and it’s not hard to see why. The French squad can call on eight Super League players and have a good mix of youth and experience in their ranks. Although it is missing the likes of Remy Casty and Vincent Duport, Les Bleus should clearly have enough in the tank to get past Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
But that is the beauty of rugby league. On paper France should have rolled Ireland over at Tallaght Stadium on the weekend in the Championships opener, with the Irish team containing a number of debutants, amateurs and with little time to prepare. However rugby league isn’t played on paper and the 22-12 defeat should serve as a wake-up call for the Europeans. You are only as a good as your last match and while progress has been made in French rugby league, resting on your laurels can be dangerous.
Heading into the tournament it had been a good 12 months for the sport in France. The national team reached the quarter-finals of the 2013 World Cup, putting in a good performance despite losing against England, and hosted two matches on home soil. The games against New Zealand and Samoa in Avignon and Perpignan attracted impressive crowds. Close to 18,000 people crammed into the Parc des Sports to see the Kiwis tackle Les Bleus, while 11,578 were on hand at the Stade Gilbert Brutus for the encounter with Samoa. Both matches generated fantastic atmospheres.
The aim of France before the World Cup was to reach the quarter-finals and that was reached. “We were in a tough group and we got through it albeit with a one point victory over Papua New Guinea,” France coach Richard Agar says. “I think regardless of how we qualified, it was a goal that was achieved. While we didn’t always execute a perfect performance, I thought we performed hard and tough in some very tough games where we were simply outgunned.”
Agar was pleased with his team’s displays in the World Cup but it has left him with clear areas to work on. “The performances were full of pride passion and effort,” he says. “The players commitment and spirit were first class. They couldn’t have given anymore. But we felt all the games had a different style to them. Overall we felt as the tournament went on we improved our attack and created more chances and openings but just didn’t have the strike and cutting edge to finish of the chances we made. We probably didn’t kick the ball well enough or have that X-factor player such as Anthony Milford when we came up against Samoa. But defensively we thought for long periods we were committed and structured.”
The World Cup helped uncover exciting new French talents in Morgan Escare and Eloi Pelissier. Both have gone on to enjoy outstanding seasons in Super League this year with Catalan Dragons, Escare in particular. But France still has work to do on becoming a stronger competitor on the international scene. According to Agar, France needs a bigger and stronger talent pool and more senior players playing at a stronger standard on a more consistent basis.
A rumoured second French team in Super League, possibly Toulouse, is one way that could push this along in the long-term. Agar would also like to see more French players try their hand in overseas competitions, and points to the likes of Ben Garcia who spent a year with Wynum-Manly in the Queensland Cup and with the Brisbane Broncos Under-20s: “Despite having only two appearances with the Catalans Dragons to his name he performed very well in three test matches. I’m sure his progress was helped by his stint in Australia.”
Remy Casty has returned to Catalans after a season with the Sydney Roosters but more French players in both the NRL and Super League would be a big boost. Creating more professional pathways for youngsters in France has to become a priority. Les Bleus were to tour New Zealand next year, for the first time since 2001 but there has been a backflip of sorts with New Zealand now traveling to England to take on the Poms. It is hoped that France will still get a chance to play against the Kiwis.
Alongside that has been the rise of the Catalans Dragons. After finishing seventh in the regular Super League season, the Dragons surprised many by upsetting Leeds and Huddersfield away from home to reach one game before the grand final. Catalans went down to St Helens, the eventual grand final winners, in the preliminary final, but showed great heart and character. With the squad they have assembled for 2015 the Dragons can be real Super League contenders next year.
There are a number of positives for French rugby league to build on. The number of people actively involved in the sport has grown in the past 15 years with now the figure hitting around 45,000 participants. The Federation Francaise de Rugby a XIII, France’s governing body, is developing partnerships and programs with primary and secondary schools to grow the junior base. It has also set up plans to increase the female participation in the sport. Results at international level, as well as in Super League, are important to inspire the local rugby league community and attract converts. Slip-ups like against Ireland will happen, but regardless real progress has made in the past few years. Development in the amateur and junior game, as well as success in the professional ranks, combine to put rugby league in France in better shape than it has been in decades. A solid base is being constructed and that must be built upon for more progress to come in the years ahead.