The French renaissance has been great for rugby league – Peter Smith
BY THIS time next week, there could be two French teams in Betfred Super League and one of them might be champions.
Both the leading two divisions were topped by a side from across the Channel in 2021 and this weekend will be possibly the most important in the history of Rugby a XIII.
On Saturday, Super League leaders Catalans Dragons face back-to-back champions St Helens in the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
The following day, Toulouse Olympique face Featherstone Rovers in the Championship title decider, with promotion to the top division up for grabs.
It has been a difficult year for rugby league, but the French renaissance has been a bright spot.
Catalans’ play-off semi-final win over Hull KR came four years to the day after they beat Leigh Centurions in a middle-eights relegation decider.
Since then, under coach Steve McNamara, they have won the Challenge Cup at Wembley and topped Super League.
They could complete their haul of major trophies on Saturday and even if they don’t, reaching Old Trafford is an impressive achievement for a young club who – as UTC, a merger between Perpignan sides XIII Catalan and AS Saint Esteve – were founded only 21 years ago.
Catalans lost some friends when they signed the controversial Israel Folau for the 2020 campaign, but most neutrals will be supporting them this weekend.
There will be concerns over the size of the crowd at Old Trafford, but Catalans’ success this year has captured the public’s imagination in the south of France and made headlines nationwide, which is almost unheard of.
Whether they can complete the job in four days’ time remains to be seen.
Saints, as they showed in their semi-final win over Leeds Rhinos, are a very good side and less likely to let the occasion get the better of them.
But, if Sam Tomkins is available after injury, the French team have a real chance of becoming the first new name on the trophy since Leeds’ maiden Grand Final victory, way back in 2004.
That itself would be good for the sport and the implications for the code across the Channel are exciting.
There will definitely be a new side in Super League next year.
Rovers have, by any standards, had an exceptional season, winning at Wembley and losing only twice in all competitions.
The club have made excellent progress over recent years and there isn’t a more rock solid rugby league hotbed anywhere in the country.
Coach James Webster’s side play a good brand of rugby, it will be Rovers’ second successive Championship final and Millennium Stadium, as Post Office Road is known, is certainly up to the job of staging Super League matches.
It is a shame the panel which chose Toronto Wolfpack’s replacement in the elite competition this year went for Leigh Centurions rather than Rovers.
Whether they would have done any better is doubtful, but it would have been good to see a different side in the competition.
The fact Rovers are a small town club, in a district including two other Super League sides, counts against them, but that’s not their fault; they have been knocking on the door for a while and will deserve their chance if and when it comes.
Toulouse will be controversial champions if they win on Sunday, having played only 14 league games, all of which they won.
However, all of those were away from home and it is admirable how the French team, coached by former Dewsbury Rams and Wakefield Trinity player Sylvain Houles, have coped against the odds.
They look like a Super League team in waiting and are based at an impressive venue, the 19,300-capacity Stade Ernest-Wallon, in a city of almost half a million people.
They won’t bring as many away fans, but that’s not their job. A second French team in Super League would be huge for the game over there, both in terms of domestic rugby and the national team’s prospects ahead of, possibly, a home World Cup in three years’ time.
The success of Catalans and Toulouse has little to do with expansion. The south of France is a heartland area, but one which has endured some tough times and unique challenges.
Whatever happens this weekend, seeing two French teams dominating the headlines should gladden the heart of any true rugby league fan.
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