Dominance of Catalans and Toulouse drives rugby league to wider audience

There is something fascinating happening in rugby league right now. For years, a sport largely defined by its teams in the heartlands across the north of England has felt constrained by its roots, unable to spread its wings and tell the rest of the world about a game its supporters believe is sport’s best-kept secret.

There is a chance that may now be changing. The professional game’s top two divisions – Super League and the Championship – are still stacked with founder members of the sport such as Wigan, St Helens and Batley but, right now, they are being dominated by two clubs from France.

Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique are far from newcomers to rugby league. The predecessor of Les Dracs, XIII Catalan, was founded in 1934, and Toulouse came along three years later in the pre-second world war boom rugby league experienced in France before the Vichy government outlawed league during the war, forcing many of its stars to switch codes.

The road to recovery for French rugby league has been steady. But Catalans’ victory in the Challenge Cup final in 2018 felt like a seminal moment and, with the Dragons leading the way in Super League and Toulouse dominating the Championship, these are halcyon days for French rugby league. The positive impact could be felt on both sides of the Channel, too.

“I think that this is going to benefit the English game and the French game,” Sylvain Houles, the Toulouse coach, said. They are overwhelming favourites to win promotion from the Championship this season, which would mean two French clubs in Super League for the very first time. A traditionalist’s nightmare, but a potentially gamechanging moment for league.

“Both clubs are aware of the importance of working together and the bigger picture of growing the game,” the Catalans’ coach, Steve McNamara, said. McNamara has revolutionised Catalans in terms of establishing the Dragons as a consistent force in Super League, while also producing the next generation of French talent.

Previously dismissed by expansion critics as a shelter for ageing overseas players, Catalans’ squad is now littered with promising French talent. “There isn’t an abundance of young players playing the game in France,” McNamara says. “So you need to work really hard to get them ready to play in Super League.

“We’ve been doing that for a number of years now. We’re really reaping the rewards of that. We revamped our squad this year to develop some more pathways and push more French players through and, while there was an unknown there, we’ve performed consistently well and given ourselves a chance to do something special.”

Chief among Catalans’ success stories is the highly talented Arthur Mourgue. Born in Saint-Etienne, the 22-year-old is the new pinup boy for French rugby league: something the sport across the Channel has badly lacked for some time. “We’ve now got kids wanting to be the next Arthur Mourgue – we haven’t had that for over a decade really,” McNamara says.

Catalans’ success despite the presence of the sport’s heavyweights is one thing, but Toulouse’s progress is all the more impressive given that they have not played a single home game in 2021. With almost all the Championship’s teams part-time, quarantine regulations have meant they have been unable to commit to trips overseas.

Yet Toulouse have travelled to England whenever required, and they have 11 wins from as many matches. “It’s been very difficult,” Houles said. “We knew we had a challenge, but the prize at the end, getting into Super League, has kept our focus. The club has been growing for a number of years, but we believe we’re ready for Super League.”

While Catalans were awarded a place in Super League in 2006, Toulouse have done it the hard way, rejoining the English leagues in 2015 and working their way up from League 1, the sport’s third tier. If they navigate the play-offs, as many expect them to do later this year, they will join Catalans in Super League, which could change the rugby league landscape as we know it.

This year’s World Cup has been pushed back to 2022, but the 2025 tournament will take place in France. “There’s a lot of work still to go, but the thought of two French teams in Super League could be huge for the World Cup,” Houles said. “There are some big rugby towns in France, and Toulouse is one of them. If we can capture the imagination of the French people, it could change rugby league.”

McNamara agrees. “If Toulouse get up, we need to maximise that opportunity the best we can in France. I think France will have a real crack in the World Cup next year, but 2025 is a big moment. The two clubs have got a wonderful relationship, and while there’ll be a rivalry if they do get up, we work with Toulouse for the greater good of French rugby league.”

The challenge now for both clubs? Finish the job. Toulouse’s task is winning the play-offs – Catalans’ is finishing top of Super League for the first time, and potentially even making a first Grand Final. “There was a perception of Catalans for a long time that they wouldn’t be able to do this,” McNamara said. “There’s a long way to go, but both clubs are in a great position.” Maybe, just maybe, rugby league is about to break free of its northern shackles.