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French get a shot at World Cup glory

Gloom may be dogging their footballers but France's rugby league players are quietly preparing to play a quarter-final.

Last updated: 16 Nov 2013 01:15
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William Barthau played for France against Samoa in front of a full house in Perpignan this week [GALLO/GETTY]

France play England in a World Cup quarter-final on Saturday, so you might expect people to get a bit excited.

"Everyone behind Les Bleus!" roared the headline of the top sports newspaper in France the day before.

But you know what's coming. That big quarter-final isn't the match that L'Équipe was talking about on its front page.

With nearly all the focus on the French football team's first leg World Cup playoff against Ukraine on Friday night, and some of the focus on their Rugby Union team's Test against Tonga on Saturday, there was literally no space available for the country's Rugby League team.

In fact, you might not know that there was a World Cup in rugby à treize (as opposed to rugby à quinze, the 15-man rugby union code) going on at all, were it not for the regional papers in the sport's heartlands in the southwest of France.

Rugby league is more spectacular, more physical, more demanding and with a much greater speed of play...but the money is in union, and in France they have taken the best league players.

Bruno Onteniente, L'Indépendent newspaper

This, unfortunately, has been the lot of rugby league – the 13-player code that garners obsessive, matter-of-life-and-death support in small pockets of the globe, and is virtually ignored outside those hotspots.

"In France, rugby league suffers in silence and sees enormous competition from rugby union which is covered by all the national media," Bruno Onteniente, rugby league writer for L'Indépendent newspaper that covers the region around Perpignan and Carcasonne, told Al Jazeera on Friday.

"L'Équipe only gives results for Super League and the World Cup; there's one journalist who covers the sport but the minimum is done and it's a huge shame.

"The World Cup has been a success with 17,000 people in Avignon and 11,000 at Perpignan, two full stadiums, sold out for the first time. It proves that the French public are interested and follow the French team."

If you're not one of those, then here's what you're missing on Saturday.

France, ranked fifth in the world, take on England, ranked third, for a place in the semi-finals against the defending champions, New Zealand.

France (who are actually nicknamed Les Chanticleers or the roosters rather than Les Bleus, although they do play in blue) are not expected to win.

Those two ranking positions hide a gulf in class, with England benefiting from having the second-strongest domestic league in the world, the Super League.

The match is taking place in Wigan, home of the team that won a league and cup double this season, and is historically the most successful in the English game. People from Wigan believe it is the home of rugby league. And they're right (I'm one of them, by the way).

But even in England, the World Cup hosts, a glance at the newstands won't give you much clue that the World Cup is happening. One of the problems is that Australia have dominated the sport, winning nine of 13 tournaments to take place since 1954.

Mass appeal

Games like Scotland against the USA – taking part for the first time – just haven't had that mass-media attraction.

Phil Wilkinson, sports editor of the Wigan Evening News, believes that is missing the point.

"Yes, if you want to watch the World Cup to see who wins it, then watch from next week," he told Al Jazeera, ceding the fact that the final will almost certainly be Australia against either England or New Zealand.

"But the early games have been fantastic. I've been full of praise for the organisers, because the sport has so much previous at shooting itself in the foot.

"Six of the 21 games so far have been upsets, even within those games there have been great moments, or daft ones – none more so that Sonny Bill Williams slipping at Warrington." That's the Sonny Bill who won the rugby union World Cup with the All Blacks two years ago, by the way.

Wilkinson also points out that England's match against Fiji drew 2.2 million domestic TV viewers last week, compared to 571,000 for the rugby union Test against Australia. So organisers, who devised a giant turkey of a contest back in 2000, when teams played to huge empty stadiums in non-rugby league areas, may feel their sport is on the up.

The Catalan Dragons are the only French team playing in Super League [GALLO/GETTY]

Their difficulty is those disparate heartlands, with a proudly working-class sport concentrated in northern England and Queensland in Australia. It was always going to be a hard sell to get middle England away from rugby union, especially when that sport did away with its amateur era in the mid-90s and teams adopted the fitness regimes of rugby league.

It also led to rugby league players adopting union contracts of a size not available to them in their previous code. For France, with an even greater lean towards union away from league, that's been disastrous.

"Rugby league is more spectacular, more physical, more demanding and with a much greater speed of play," says Onteniente.

"The forwards in union are incapable of playing more than 10 minutes of rugby league – it's not the same sport. But the money is in union, and in France they have taken the best league players.

"Teams like Toulon also take the best young players from rugby league because they have the means to attract the young. In league, only the Catalan Dragons are capable of retaining their young talents."

The Dragons are the only French side in Super League, with Onteniente believing that Paris needs a glamour team if the sport is to get popular there and grab some media attention.

"Parisians like shiny things, like Paris Saint-Germain and Stade Francais. There needs to be a league team in Paris with stars, like PSG rugby league in 1996 (which played two Super League seasons before folding)."

For the here and now, the French players arrive at the DW Stadium in Wigan on Saturday in front of a public that has the sport in its blood.

No half measures

"It's huge, isn't it," Wilkinson says about the passion for league in the town, halfway between Manchester and Liverpool in the northwest of England.

"It's life for the people here. I've just been down to the DW Stadium and Steve McNamara (the England coach) said it was the hotbed of rugby league, and people live it, breathe it, and die it in this town.

"You only have to look at the number of Wigan-born players in rugby league, and even those who have transcended the codes into rugby union."

One of those players will get the chance on Saturday to say a last goodbye to the place where he has played the sport since his childhood.

Sam Tomkins lifted two trophies with Wigan Warriors last season, and will leave to begin life as an Auckland Warriors player in the NRL (his brother Joel is one of those transcendent types, and will probably play for England in their rugby union Test against New Zealand which also takes place on Saturday).

He's selected alongside five other Wigan players in a team that is very unlikely to lose to a team that suffered defeat to Samoa in their last match.

"It's in fact the Dragons against the best English players," says Onteniente.

"It will be too hard for them. The only chance for the French to win is if the English take the match lightly, but even then it would astonish me."

This could even be the chance for respected papers like L'Équipe to astonish their readers and give the match some coverage.

After Friday night's football in Ukraine, it might be the last World Cup action the French see for a while.

Paul Rhys is a sports correspondent and presenter writing for Al Jazeera from Paris. Follow him on @PaulRhys_Sport or go to paulrhys.com.

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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