I have a perhaps unhealthy fascination with French rugby league.
France is the great ‘what if?’ of our game. While rugby à Treize (rugby 13) might be emerging from its long hibernation, it won’t ever be what it might’ve been.
Before you start, I’m not using Vichy as an excuse. It certainly had a material impact, but it could have been overcome with the right leadership.
Regardless, my rugby league hero is the French game’s founding father, Jean Galia. I hope to tell you some of his story and legacy.
Like rugby league in Australia and England, rugby league in France is not a national pastime. Its heartland is the southwest of the country in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Occitanie, mainly in the cities of Perpignan and Toulouse.
Football dominates the north. Rugby union is prevalent in league’s heartland and surrounds it to the east, along the Swiss border and the Cote d’Azur, and the west, along the posh Aquitaine coast and down to the Basque Country.
Rugby league’s original footprint, still evident among the semi-professional and amateur clubs in the French lower leagues, is much wider. Early on, the game spread quickly into Aquitaine and up to Bordeaux, and through Provence up to Lyon.
The original proposal for a rugby 13 championship included two teams in Paris and one in the Basque Country.
Professional rugby league in France dates to early 1934 and a series of demonstration matches in England and France, the formation of a governing body and the founding of the first club, Treize Catalan, the forerunner to the Catalans Dragons.
The national team first donned its tricolour in a Test match against England at Paris in April 1934 and recorded its first victory against Wales at Bordeaux in January 1935.
Like the miners who started playing rugby league in the north of England in the late 19th century, and the miners, tradies and labourers who shaped the early development of league in Australia, the people who grew the game in France were mostly from humble, working-class roots.
Those who established the game were from rugby union. French rugby league owed much to union in its early years. It certainly wasn’t intentional. Rugby union’s myopia and dysfunction created ideal conditions for the emergence of a breakaway.
While rugby union was officially an amateur sport, few involved made serious attempts to disguise the competition between clubs for players and the money paid to attract their services. This, coupled with escalating on-field violence, including multiple player deaths, saw France banned from playing internationals against the British nations and Ireland in the 1920s and early 1930s.
None of this was lost on rugby league administrators in England and Australia who had long been plotting to introduce league to France. SG Ball, of the eponymous Australian junior rugby league competition, travelled to France in 1921 looking to make friends and convert people.
In early 1934, a group of disgruntled rugby union players, organised and led by the French international Jean Galia, who’d fallen foul of rugby union’s veneer of amateurism and been banned from playing, formed the first French professional “neo-rugby” team.
On 10 March 1934, Galia’s French XIII played its first game against Wigan at Central Park. They led briefly in the second half before Wigan prevailed 30-27. On 24 March 1934, in the fifth match of their English tour, the French XIII beat Hull FC 26-23.
A few weeks later, with the assistance of the English Rugby Football League, the first governing body, the Ligue Française de Rugby à Trieze was formed. England travelled to Paris for the first Test match and the show was on the road.
Rugby union sought to make life difficult for rugby league almost as soon as Galia and his confrères banded together.
While feigning disinterest and expressing its earnest (and straight-faced) disapproval of professionalism, union was seeking to have rugby league banned from municipal grounds and blacklisting facilities, officials or players who associated with the new game.
Despite this, the game’s growth exceeded all expectations.
Those who’d seen and enjoyed Galia’s team in their first games in France were signing up in droves, many of them from rugby union. Crowds were attending and the start-up was already making profits.
By October 1934, a championship comprising ten new clubs had formed. While some clubs had trouble finding a place to play, none had any serious trouble finding players.
The first championship was played in front of good crowds and won by Jean Galia’s Sports Athletic Villeneuvois XIII. By the end of the first season, approximately 100 amateur clubs had formed across the country.
These were all signs of things to come, and rugby union was not impressed. Union strongholds at Villeneuve and Bordeaux had turned. Union needed new friends. Unfortunately, it found some.
All information sourced from Rylance, M (2012), The Forbidden Game: The untold story of French rugby league, League Publications Ltd.