Catalan Dragons hope to breathe new life into Rugby League

Two finals for the price of one, it’s a weekend that could set a milestone for French rugby union. Saturday 9 October (7 p.m.) at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, the Catalan Dragons play against St Helens in the first French final in Super League history. Sunday (7 p.m.), it will be the turn of Toulouse Olympique (TO) to play in its Ernest-Wallon stadium the Championship final (English second division), against Featherstone, with the supreme objective of joining the Perpignan club in Super League, the elite of European rugby union – created in 1996.

To get there, the two Occitan clubs have achieved brilliant courses. The Catalan Dragons finished the regular season at the top of the standings, before safely dismissing Hull Kingston Rovers (Hull KR) in the semi-finals (28-10). Toulouse did even stronger. Sylvain Houlès’ men have won it all, although they have never played at home this regular season due to travel restrictions with England.

A forced exile in the English championship

“When we entered this competition, fifteen years ago, I had my eyes full of Old Trafford”, remembers Bernard Guasch, the founding president of the Catalan Dragons. It was indeed necessary to go into exile across the Channel to find a level that did not exist in France. A decision “Imposed by the English, seeing that they could no longer play an interesting international match”, completes the former Catalan XIII player, who merged in 2000 with Saint-Estève to create the Catalan Dragons. In 2006, the latter responded to the outstretched hand of the Super League, at the expense of Toulouse Olympique and Villeneuve-sur-Lot who had also filed a case. History is on the move.

But the Olympic Toulouse (TO) did not resign, it also crossed the Channel, in 2009, to compete for the Championship for three years. In 2016, the club founded in 1937 returned to England after four seasons of hiatus, but had to resume at the bottom of the ladder, in League 1 (third division). “We left for the simple reason that the maximum level [en France] corresponds to Federal 3 [cinquième division du rugby à XV], explains Bernard Sarrazain, the president of the Toulouse club. We had to move abroad to play at the next level. “

“The victory combined with a promotion from Toulouse would trigger a new era of rugby with thirteen”, anticipates Bernard Guasch, president of the Catalan Dragons

Because hexagonal rugby has returned to anonymity, far from its prosperous years of the XXe century, haloed by two World Cup finals in 1954 and 1968. “In 2000, rugby union was at the bottom of the bucket, sums up Bernard Guasch. Rugby has supplanted us, we were ahead and we lost it completely, we are lagging behind. “” The XIII and my predecessors sought to withdraw into themselves, many fights have bruised it “, regrets Luc Lacoste, president of the French rugby union federation since December 2020. With 200 clubs and 20,000 practitioners, the discipline is still far from rivaling its cousin, who to date claims 265,000 licensees.

The combined victories of the Catalan Dragons and the TO this weekend would be an unexpected springboard in the hope of democratizing the sport. “The victory combined with a promotion from Toulouse would trigger a new era of rugby union”, says Bernard Guasch. The task will not be easy for the Catalans against St Helens, the most successful franchise in the competition (eight wins). “It would help revive rugby union, continues Bernard Sarrazain. We would take another dimension, sportingly but also economically. “Seeing the TO in the Super League would allow wonderful games against the Dragons and would advance all of French rugby league by making it more media-friendly”, hopes Luc Lacoste.

The 2025 World Cup in France?

Even before the two meetings, the discipline has regained light in recent weeks. “We are already starting to talk about the XIII again”, continues the president of the federation. “The cameras are turning towards us, savor the Catalan Bernard Guasch. There has been a new impetus for three years and our victory in the FA Cup in 2018. Today, it takes on a national dimension. ”

The French championship, Elite 1, is however still light years away from the Super League, where the Catalan Dragons have a budget of between 13 million and 14 million euros. At the lower level, Toulouse’s budget is around 3 million euros. But is the ambition to see these clubs return to France one day? Visions are shared. “The Super League is at a very high level, and you should never give it up, believes Luc Lacoste. But I hope that one day we will have a great French championship, we are working on it. ” The next step will be to expand into new regions, since seven of the nine clubs in the French championship are established in the Occitanie region.

Rugby Union is, in any case, in an unprecedented dynamic, with the ambition to advance the team of France in parallel. “Visibility goes through a triptych: Dragons, Toulouse and the French team”, insists Luc Lacoste. “A high-performance French team will generate support for our sport”, abounds Bernard Sarrazain.

The Habs will participate in the 2022 World Cup, in England, before, perhaps, to host the next edition, in 2025, for which the federation has applied. “The 2025 World Cup would be the icing on the cake”, concludes Luc Lacoste.

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