When the 2025 Rugby League World Cup in France collapsed earlier this year, there was a genuine fear for the health of the sport in the country.
Fast forward five months to a nation absorbed instead by the Rugby Union World Cup, and - far from disappearing - France’s two big league sides are fighting their way back into the public’s sporting conscience.
By Sunday night France could have a World Cup semi-final place for their union side, Catalans Dragons could be Betfred Super League champions, and Toulouse could have secured Super League promotion themselves with victory over London Broncos in the Million Pound Game.
“On the pitch things are going well,” the Dragons’ English head coach Steve McNamara told The Sportsman from his Grand Final press conference in Manchester.
“They have the union World Cup on in France which is a huge animal across there, but we are holding our own right now.”
McNamara and his trusted foot soldier - the retiring Sam Tomkins - have helped turn the Dragons from intriguing also-rans into genuine rugby league heavyweights during their time in the south of France. As he prepares to face his hometown club Wigan in his last ever game, Tomkins admits he now calls France home. Having relocated in 2019, the 34-year-old will stay on there after his looming retirement, with his children speaking better French he says than he does English.
“The region we live in is rugby league mad and there is a genuine passion for it,” Tomkins tells The Sportsman.
“In terms of a fan base and a passion for rugby we are the same as any other team on the M62.”
Yet the wheels could have come off the French project with May’s scrapping of the Rugby League World Cup, hot on the heels of Toulouse’s immediate relegation from Super League after just one season.
Indeed Tomkins himself told The Sportsman this summer of his fears for potential damage to the “upward trajectory of rugby league” in France, calling the World Cup KO “a real kick in the guts”.
But with hindsight McNamara insists that brave move was the best thing that could have happened to safeguard league’s development in France, and one he believes is already reaping rewards.
”If they had continued on the path of doing the World Cup and then made a mess of it, that would have created a bigger problem than cancelling it,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to make that tough decision that isn’t great at the time or popular at the time and puts a bit of embarrassment on your game. But if you continue down the path of something you can’t achieve then that is worse.
“It was a brave decision and the right decision and now we are flying the flag for the French Rugby League and we are happy to do that, as are Toulouse.”
Toulouse is a remarkable story, appearing destined for an extended stay in the Betfred Championship following their Super League relegation after just one season.
The club had incurred hefty debts, thanks in no small part to their subsidy of teams travelling to the south of France, with the Covid period hitting especially hard.
Results earlier on this season were awful. The promotion-hopefuls lost at Bradford and Sheffield in the first few weeks of the season before losing every game they played in May - at London, Batley and then most surprisingly of all Swinton. They lost to London again in July, and Featherstone’s win in France last month seemed to highlight how much the balance of power had shifted as a 12-point gap opened up at the top.
But after Featherstone’s shock semi-final capitulation to London, Toulouse are suddenly favourites to go straight back up.
“Toulouse being back in Super League would certainly bolster the French game, I would love them to be back in,” Tomkins adds.
“There are question marks over what we (French sides) bring to the competition but there are a question marks over a lot of teams in Super League who bring very, very little, so the French sides certainly bring something.”
What Catalans and Toulouse bring this weekend is a realistic opportunity for unprecedented French rugby league glory.
Very few would have predicted a Catalans-Toulouse title double at the start of the year, but now it is so close. Toulouse will be favourites, Catalans will not. But the Dragons are battle-hardened from an agonising 12-10 defeat to St Helens in their only previous Grand Final appearance two years ago.
Tomkins, who admits he is still not over that defeat, is the poster boy for the 2023 Grand Final in his last ever game. But McNamara believes that deflects from the real story here, namely the emergence of a passionate, powerful group of French rugby league players bidding to become the first ever French champions of Super League.
“There is a lot of talk around this game about Sam and rightly so,” says the Dragons coach.
“But this game is about the French, it’s about Ben Garcia, Julian Bousquet, Paul Seguier, Arthur Romano, Alrix da Costa, Fouad Yaha.
“Those boys are the backbone of our team and our organisation. They are genuinely the heartbeat of our club.
“I get all the talk around Sam but in reality this is about France, the French boys, everything they have committed to being the best they can possibly be. They are the main reason why this club has made such a transition from an inconsistent team to a consistent team.
“So if we win the game it would have a big impact on the game in France.”
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