Rugby league in France

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Rugby league in France
Governing bodyFédération Française de Rugby à XIII
National team(s)France
Nickname(s)Les Chanticleers or les Tricolores
First played1934
Registered players39,994[1]
National competitions
Club competitions

Rugby league has been played in France since 1934.[2] As with rugby union, rugby league was introduced by the English and the heartland of the game is in the south of France.

During the Second World War, in association with the French Rugby Federation (FFR), the sport was banned by the Vichy government, an act from which the code has struggled to recover. There has been a recent resurgence of the sport following the admission of Catalans Dragons to the Super League. In 2012, there were approximately 30,000 active participants.


Introduction of the sport to WWII[edit]

Rugby football was introduced into France by the British in the early 1870s. It began to flourish quickly in the poorer, more rural south. The French rugby clubs remained aligned with the Home Nation unions when rugby split into Rugby Union and Northern Union (later renamed Rugby League) in 1895.

Allegations of professionalism and on-field violence in internationals led to France's suspension from the rugby union Five Nations Championship in 1931. Following development work by both Harry Sunderland (on behalf of the Australian Rugby League) and the British Rugby Football League, the Australian and British Test teams played an exhibition game at Stade Pershing in Paris in late December 1933. An earlier exhibition match between the two teams had been attempted to be played in Paris during the 1921-22 Kangaroo tour of Great Britain, but this had been blocked by the FFR. Then in 1934, Jean Galia took a French team that had never played rugby league to Yorkshire and Lancashire in England. The French Rugby League was formed on 6 April 1934.[3]

With France's continued suspension from the Five Nations Championship preventing its players from participating in quality international competition, many began to consider the newly introduced 13-man code. With rugby league's acceptance of professionalism and spectator-friendly rules, the French viewed it as a modern and innovative game, and it grew quickly in popularity.[4] Within five years, the number of rugby league clubs was approaching the number of rugby union clubs. By 1939, the French league had 225 clubs and the national side beat England and Wales to take the 1938-39 European Championship, their first.[5] In the same year, three leading rugby union clubs – Narbonne, Carcassonne and Brive – switched to rugby league.

The invasion of France by Germany in May 1940 divided the country into Occupied France in the north and a southern pro-Nazi Vichy France, the latter of which roughly corresponded to the rugby-playing heartlands. The Vichy Government under Philippe Pétain associated rugby league with the pre-war socialist government, the United Kingdom and General Charles de Gaulle. Some of the French Rugby Union's senior administrators took advantage of their close relationship with the new regime to have rugby league outlawed as a "corrupter" of French youth.[6] All funds as well as grounds and equipment belonging to the French Rugby League Federation were confiscated and handed over to rugby union. The figure of assets stripped has been estimated at two million 1940 French francs, none of which was ever returned.[7] In addition, rugby league players were forced to switch to rugby union or other sports or quit sport altogether.

The federation was reinstated in September 1944, but the damage caused by the Vichy Government's actions proved to be long-lasting and rugby league struggled to regain its pre-war momentum.

Post-war to the present[edit]

The French national rugby league team in 1951

On 10 July 1947, a “gentleman's agreement” was signed between the Ligue Française de rugby à treize (Paul Barrière as representative), the French republic and the French rugby union for division of the Ligue Française de rugby à treize in two parts: a Federation française de jeu à treize as the governing body of the amateur game and a Ligue de rugby à XIII as the governing body for the semi-professional game.[8] Although the ban on rugby league was lifted, it was prevented from using the word rugby in its title from 24 April 1949 until 26 June 1991, having to use the name Jeu à Treize (Game of Thirteen). Rugby league remained banned in schools and was limited to 200 professional players under this dubious arrangement.

After the war the French game was re-established and the French became one of rugby league's major powers. France was the driving force behind the establishment of the Rugby League World Cup following the war.[9] The first Rugby League World Cup was held in France in 1954; the final at Parc des Princes was narrowly lost by France 12-16 to a young, underdog Great Britain. France played major international series against Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In 1951 and 1955, the French national team toured Australia and won both Test series 2-1; these squads are still regarded as two of the strongest sides ever to tour Australia.

The French maintained an excellent record in international rugby league until the 1980s, triumphing over Australia again in the home 1967-68 series and finishing as runner-up to Australia in the 1968 Rugby League World Cup. The Chanticleers also defeated Australia in the home 1978 Test series by 2 Tests to nil - a feat not repeated over Australia by another international team until the 2005 Rugby League Tri-Nations series win by New Zealand. Their competitiveness against Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand began to decline in the 1980s and they have yet to recover their former strength, with their last win over one of those teams being in 1990 against Great Britain.

France playing Australia, November 2004

The original proposal for the Super League in 1995 was for two French clubs, with both Paris and Toulouse being proposed. This was subsequently reduced to one, after much discussion among clubs. In February 1996, a French team, Paris Saint-Germain was formed to take part in the otherwise English Super League. The players being drawn from the French league. It was abandoned in October 1997, partly because Paris was not in the southern heartland of French rugby league and partly because the players had the double burden of playing for both Paris and their original club.

In 1998, XIII Actif were formed under the Chairmanship of French rugby league historian Robert Fassolette, to put pressure on the French government over the Vichy banning of the sport and the return of stolen assets. The French Minister of Sport commissioned an enquiry, which found in favour of XIII Actif. The Court then ruled that only the French rugby league federation could take action under its former name - a name it had been forced to change.

Professional rugby league returned to France in February 2006 when Perpignan-based club Catalans Dragons joined Super League. They provided French rugby league with a major boost by demonstrating their prowess before nearly 85,000 people at Wembley in the Final of the 2007 Rugby League Challenge Cup. In 2018 they won the RL Challenge Cup, beating Warrington Wolves 20 - 14 before a 50,672 crowd at Wembley.

Governing body[edit]

Since 26 June 1991 the governing body for rugby league in France has been the Fédération Française de Rugby à XIII (i.e. formerly Ligue Française de Rugby à XIII then, Fédération Française de Jeu à XIII). The Federation is a founding member of and a full member of the Rugby League International Federation (i.e. IRLB Jan. 1948) and of the Rugby League European Federation (i.e. May 2003).


The French Rugby League Championship has been the major rugby league tournament for semi-professional clubs in France since the sport was introduced to the country in the 1930s. The championship is divided into several divisions; the top league being Elite One Championship, below that is the Elite Two Championship. There are several lower and regional divisions below them. The premier knock-out cup is the Lord Derby Cup and there is the Coupe Falcou for National Division One and Federal clubs.

At its height, the French Championship maintained teams from the big cities of Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux and Toulouse, as well as the passionate smaller rugby league towns of Carcassonne, Avignon, Lezignan, Albi, Villeneuve and Perpignan.

Each year four French teams take part in the Rugby League Challenge Cup and, since February 2006, the Perpignan-based club, Catalans Dragons (formerly known as Union Treiziste Catalan), play in the Super League. Toulouse Olympique bid for a 2009 Super League franchise but were rejected. They then accepted a place in the previously all-British Championship, and played three mostly unsuccessful seasons in that league before returning to the French league in 2012. Toulouse Olympique later returned to the British league system, beginning play in the third-level League 1 in 2016 and earning promotion to the Championship for 2017. The city of Toulouse maintains a presence in the French leagues through Toulouse Olympique Broncos, which have been the official reserve side for Toulouse Olympique since being taken over by that club in 2012.

French teams in the RFL[edit]

French teams have the ability to apply to the RFL to play in tiers one, two, or three of the British rugby league system (providing they meet certain criteria) as this is generally considered a higher standard of rugby league. Teams that have done so are listed below:

Team Current Division Stadium City/Area Founded Time in RFL
France colours.svg PSG N/A Stade Sébastien Charléty Paris 1995 1996–1997
Catalanscolours.svg Catalans Dragons Super League Stade Gilbert Brutus Perpignan, Pyrénées-Orientales 2000 (XIII Catalan, 1935) 2006–Present
ToulouseRLcolours.png Toulouse Olympique Championship Stade Ernest-Wallon Toulouse 1937 2009–2010; 2016–Present


Division of popularity of Rugby League (red) and Rugby Union (blue) by department in 2009.

Rugby league is most popular in the south of France. The game struggles for attention in the national media, but it is covered by regional outlets in the south. However, the introduction of Catalans Dragons into Super League in 2006 and Toulouse Olympique into RFL Championship in 2009 has seen increased coverage with articles appearing in national newspapers such as L'Équipe, Libération and Le Figaro. It has also contributed to the rise in playing numbers to the current number of approximately 30,000.[10][11]

The national team[edit]

The French national rugby league team are often nicknamed les Chanteclairs, after the cockerel which is the emblem of the team, or as les Tricolores. They have competed in every World Cup and Rugby League European Cup, as well as playing in other tournaments such as the Victory Cup.

In 2009, it was announced that France would enter the Tri-Nations tournament as a fourth team (necessitating its renaming to the Rugby League Four Nations), playing alongside Australia, New Zealand and England. The introduction of Catalans Dragons into the Super League and recent strong performances from the international side led to this decision. Until the tournament's suspension in 2017, the winner of the Rugby League European Cup qualified as the fourth team when the competition was held in the northern hemisphere and the winner of the Pacific Cup was the fourth team when it was held in the southern hemisphere. 2009 remains the only year France has played in this tournament.

The French territory of New Caledonia has had its own rugby league team since 2003, which is run by the Fédération Francaise de Rugby à Treize.



Orange TV shows every Catalans Dragons home match live. Selected games from the Elite Championship are broadcast live on Orange TV and summaries of each match Elite 1 are available to subscribers. They also broadcast some of Toulouse Olympique's home games live.

Orange TV also secured to rights to broadcast Super League, the Four Nations and the European Cup in 2009.[10] In 2010, Direct 8 gained the rights to four international matches involving France: a test match against England on June 12 and the three French games of the 2010 European Cup.[12] This marks the first time rugby league has been shown on French free-to-air television for at least two decades.


Radio Marseillette has rugby league debate and news every Saturday from 10:00 to 12:00. They also have exclusive live commentary of all Catalans Dragons home matches and Toulouse Olympique home matches. They also have commentary on some Elite League games.

Radio France Bleu Roussillon carries commentary on every Catalans Dragons away match played in the UK.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Larrat heralds 'remarkable growth' in France". Archived from the original on 2011-05-16. Retrieved 2011-11-18.
  2. ^ "France". Rugby League Planet. Retrieved 28 July 2012.
  3. ^ Lyle, Beaton (7 April 2009). "75 Years of French Rugby League". Archived from the original on 8 September 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2011.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The History Of Rugby League". Rugby League Information. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
  6. ^ Dine, Philip (2001). French rugby football: a cultural history. Berg Publishers. pp. 107–108. ISBN 9781859733271.
  7. ^ Waddingham, Steve. "Why this trophy for winning the world cup?". Courier & Mail, June 15, 2008. News Queensland. Retrieved 2 September 2011.
  8. ^ "gentlemen agreement of 10th july 1947". Retrieved 2011-11-18.
  9. ^ AAP (1953-01-19). "World Cup Suggestion". The Sydney Morning Herald. Australia. p. 7. Retrieved 2009-12-25.
  10. ^ a b "France". Rugby League Planet. Retrieved 2011-11-18.
  11. ^ [1][dead link]
  12. ^ Baldy, Bernard (2010-06-02). "Du nouveau a la tele". rugby league. Archived from the original on 2011-10-09. Retrieved 2011-11-18.

External links[edit]