The dominance of the Catalans and Toulouse is pushing the rugby league to a wider audience | Rugby league
TSomething fascinating is happening here in the rugby league. For years, a sport defined mainly by its teams in the heartlands of the north of England has felt constrained by its roots, unable to spread its wings and tell the rest of the world about a game its followers are for keep the sport’s best kept secret.
There is an opportunity that may now change. The top two leagues in professional sport – the Super League and Championship – are still stacked by founding members of the sport like Wigan, St. Helens and Batley, but they are currently dominated by two clubs from France.
Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique are far from newcomers to the rugby league. Les Dracs’ predecessor, XIII Catalan, was founded in 1934, and Toulouse entered the pre-WWII rugby league three years later, which France saw before the Vichy government banned the league during the war and many of theirs Stars forced to change codes.
The road to recovery for the French rugby league has been steady. But the Catalans’ win in the Challenge Cup final in 2018 felt like a landmark moment and with the Dragons leading the Super League and Toulouse dominating the championship, these are happy days for the French rugby league. The positive effects could also be felt on both sides of the canal.
“I think this will benefit the English and French games,” said Sylvain Houles, Toulouse coach. They are overwhelming favorites for promotion from the championship this season, which would mean two French clubs in the Super League for the first time. A traditionalist’s nightmare, but a potentially game-changing moment for the league.
“Both clubs are aware of the importance of working together and the bigger picture of how the game will develop,” said Catalans coach Steve McNamara. McNamara revolutionized the Catalans by establishing the Dragons as a permanent force in the Super League while also spawning the next generation of French talent.
Previously dismissed by expansion critics as a haven for aging players from overseas, the Catalans’ squad is now littered with promising French talent. “There aren’t a lot of young players in France playing the game,” says McNamara. “So you have to work really hard to prepare you for the Super League.
Toulouse Olympique have their sights set on promotion to the Super League – when they get there, two French clubs will be competing for the first time. Photo: Simon Hall / ProSports / Shutterstock
“We have been doing this for a number of years. We are really reaping the benefits. We revamped our squad this year to develop further avenues and push through more French players, and although there was a stranger there, we performed consistently well and gave ourselves the chance to do something special. “
The most important success story of the Catalans is the highly talented Arthur Mourgue. The 22-year-old, born in Saint-Etienne, is the new pin-up boy for the French rugby league: something that the sport across the English Channel has been lacking for some time. “We now have children who want to be the next Arthur Mourgue – we haven’t had that in over a decade,” says McNamara.
The Catalans’ success despite the presence of the sport’s heavyweights is one thing, but Toulouse’s advances are all the more impressive given that they didn’t play a single home game in 2021 and were unable to travel abroad.
However, Toulouse has traveled to England on demand and has taken eleven wins from as many games. “It was very difficult,” said Houles. “We knew we had a challenge, but the prize in the end, the entry into the Super League, kept our focus. The club has been growing for a few years, but we believe we are ready for the Super League. “
While the Catalans got a spot in the Super League in 2006, Toulouse managed the hard way to return to the English leagues in 2015 and work their way up from League 1, the sport’s third division. If they make the play-offs, which many of them expect later this year, they will join the Catalans in the Super League, which could change the rugby league landscape as we know it.
This year’s World Cup has been postponed to 2022, but the 2025 tournament will take place in France. “We still have a lot of work to do but the thought of two French teams in the Super League could be big for the World Cup,” said Houles. “There are some big rugby cities in France and Toulouse is one of them. If we can spark the imagination of the French, it could change the rugby league. “
McNamara agrees. “If Toulouse gets up, we have to make the most of this opportunity in France. I think France will have a real blast at the World Cup next year, but 2025 is a big moment. The two clubs have a wonderful relationship and although there will be a rivalry when they stand up, we are working with Toulouse for the benefit of the French rugby league. “
The challenge now for both clubs? Finish the task. Toulouse’s job is to win the play-offs – the Catalans will top the Super League for the first time and possibly even the first Grand Final. “The Catalans had the idea for a long time that they couldn’t,” said McNamara. “There is still a long way to go but both clubs are in a great position.” Maybe, just maybe, the rugby league is breaking free of its northern shackles.