Super League has been delayed until at least late March and the NRL is not kicking off until 11 March, but at least rugby league fans have some live action to watch this winter. With Catalan Dragons and Toulouse Olympique still in some jeopardy due to the French government’s decision to prevent their Top 14 rugby union teams from crossing the channel for European competition, the most French rugby league we may see this year is the domestic Elite Championship.
Like last season, regional channel Vià Occitanie is broadcasting one live match each weekend this winter, with the games available not only on TV in France but also worldwide via their online stream. There are several familiar names in action: former Leeds stalwart Anthony Mullally is now playing for Carcassonne, with his ponytail and gawky gait intact; the shorts of former Wigan prop Eddy Pettybourne are tighter than ever at Villeneuve; Con Mika and John Boudebza, who both played for Hull Kingston Rovers, are also in the Elite; and the division is home to a load of former Catalan Dragons, from Mikael Simon to Lucas Albert.
There is an innocent joy in discovering a new sporting competition: the clubs, colours, grounds and players. Even if you thought you were familiar with rugby à treize, seeing the Stade Gilbert Brutus in Perpignan or Parc de Sports in Avignon empty provides a unique visual stage. Most of them have a parochial charm, with church towers on the horizon and pitchside hoardings that advertise local charcuteries or boulangeries (and the obligatory hypermarket L.Eclerc) rather than multinationals or mushy peas. These are humble arenas; more Keighley than KCom, and more Heywood Road than Headingley.
The fact that the games are being played behind closed doors may not make a huge difference given that some attendances rarely make it into four figures anyway, but viewers have the typically excitable French commentary rather than a soundtrack of claxons and raucous Gallic cries. With no crowds to draw your attention from the action, a roaming eye can take in the unfamiliar surroundings instead. Beyond the rather humdrum stands there are some delightful vignettes: the grand Art Deco archway at Carcassonne; the hedges behind the posts and mountain on the horizon above Albi; and the rugby sculpture on the roundabout outside Saint-Gaudens’ tree-lined oval, where every wall is painted off-white and every door, gate and post in powder blue. At Carcassonne the cameras face the sleek refurbished main stand, revealing the delightfully stylish modernist decorative concrete lattice work webbing and abstract screen wall outside.
It all just looks different and helped by the fact that – just like the NRL – few teams wear colour combinations that are used by major British clubs. Lezignan wear a bottle green kit with pink trim; Palau Broncos are in Papau New Guinea-style yellow, red and black, complete with McDonald’s Golden Arches on the chest; Albi are in Wests Tigers’ orange and black; Villeneuve are in all white with a green V; and Saint-Estève wear navy blue jerseys over the more familiar sang et or.
Carcassonne are top of the league at the midway point of the season. They put previously unbeaten Villeneuve in their place last week, but only just squeezed past Limoux Grizzlies this weekend. Given their big-money recruitment it’s no surprise new-look Carcassonne are doing well, especially if the outward appearance of coach Frederic Camel is anything to go by: he looks like a man not to be crossed. Young France half-back Lucas Albert seems to be enjoying himself back at his hometown club, where his father is director of rugby. He looks as if he has all the time in the world, so is probably playing at a level beneath him.
Villeneuve, who won their first four games, have their own classy French No 7, Stan Robert, as well as top-flight veteran forwards Pettybourne and Con Mika, and centre Gavin Marguerite, who was lighting up the World 9s for France a year ago. All four were brought in from Toulouse, exemplifying the benefit of talent dripping down into the domestic competition. The third title challenger appears to be Lezignan.
Renowned rugby league radio commentator Bruno Onteniente, who is now working on Via Occitanie’s broadcasts, agrees with Catalan coach Steve McNamara’s recent comments that the Elite is better than it has been for years. “The standard has been amazing this season,” says Onteniente. “If you judge it by our top teams – Carcassonne, Villeneuve, Lézignan, Dragons U23 – I can’t remember this level for a long time. For sure, our top five would be competitive against the Championship’s top six. For the first time, French teams are trying to play like they smell and not like in Super League or the NRL.”
While it is predominantly a French talent competition, there are a plethora of Antipodeans in the Elite this season. Most clubs have at least a couple of Australian players who spent most of their twenties toiling around the Queensland and NSW Cups hoping to get a crack at the NRL before realising that a year or two in the south of France might be a more enjoyable option. Limoux, for example, have centre Jordan Drew, who made one NRL appearance for Brisbane Broncos, and halfback Eli Levido, who has been at three NRL clubs. International recruitment has meant playing opportunities for those who would otherwise be kicking their heels. Albi imported inexperienced Geordie forward Tyler Walton from Newcastle Thunder and young Italy halfback Marc Zaurrini; Palau brought back former Coventry forward Gioele Celerino and fielded three Boudebzas, including 2015 Challenge Cup finalist John.
Away from the Dragons and Toulouse, the Super League era has been tough on French rugby league. Imagine Wigan joining the NRL and St Helens heading to the Queensland Cup, leaving their Under-23s in Super League instead, then Leeds and Hull following London, Toronto and Bradford out of the top flight. There would not be a lot left, would there? Good luck getting a TV deal. That’s what happened to the misnamed Elite, who had to replace big city clubs with village teams. With the Dragons in Super League and Toulouse Olympique in the Championship, the Elite became Europe’s other third division.
Since BeIN pulled out in 2019, Super League has been without a French TV deal. Although L’Equipe TV stepped in to show Dragons’ games after the restart last year, their play-off matches were not on TV anywhere in France, a dreadful commercial failure by Super League. There remains no deal on the table for 2021 yet either.
Via Occitanie’s tagline is “the channel with an accent” making it a perfect fit for rugby league: a proud, strong, regional product that can be exported to a far greater audience. With four channels covering a region of six million from Toulouse in the west to Montpellier in the east and Perpignan to the south, Via Occitanie is akin to S4C or BBC Scotland. Thanks to their partnership with the French rugby league federation, there is live rugby league on TV now. Enjoy the escape while you can.