Super League Grand Final: Super League could witness its first French derby next season if Toulouse beat Featherstone Rovers in Sunday’s ‘Million Pound Game’
“One step forward, two steps back” could be the mantra of rugby league, instilled deep in the sport’s DNA. No better an example of this can be found across the Channel in France.
The 13-man code has a long history in France, one that goes back almost a hundred years. But it is a history of boom and bust, largely of oppression and heartache, that includes the Nazis trying to ban it during the Second World War.
Despite that rugby league survived, and even thrived, in the southern part of the country in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the decades since it has struggled to match its past glories. Internationally, France has been surpassed by the rise of the Pacific Island nations and the national team has not beaten Australia since 1978, nor Great Britain since 1990.
Rugby union is the dominant rugby code and league is entrenched only in le Midi. But progress has been made in the club arena, if not nationally, and this weekend Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique XIII are poised for a slice of history.
Super League Grand Final 2021
- Teams: Catalans Dragons vs St Helens
- Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester
- Date: Saturday 9 October
- Kick-off time: 6pm
- TV channel: Sky Sports Main Event (from 5pm)
- Live stream: FuboTV (Start 7 daye free trial Now!)
- Radio: BBC Radio 5 Live
- Highlights: BBC Two (5pm on Sunday)
Catalans, who have never won Super League, face defending champions St Helens in the Grand Final at Old Trafford on Saturday, while Toulouse take on Featherstone Rovers on Sunday in the “Million Pound Game” with promotion to the top flight at stake.
Super League has never boasted two Gallic sides, but the hope is that the first French derby could breathe new life and interest into both the competition and the sport in France and beyond.
“It would be massive, the derby would have the potential to be one of the biggest in Super League in terms of attendance figure each year,” Catalans half-back Josh Drinkwater tells i.
“It would create more exposure and more young kids coming through and playing the game, which in the long-term would be great for the game. I know a lot of English supporters don’t like having one French team in Super League, so there will be some backlash, but I guarantee if they came out to a game in France and saw the crowds and how much it means to the people they would change their mind.”
The Dragons have been on the rise since winning the Challenge Cup for the first time in 2018, and then breaking records by attracting a crowd of 31,555 at Barcelona’s Camp Nou for a match against Wigan in 2019.
Under the coaching of former England boss Steve McNamara, and powered by England skipper and current Man of Steel Sam Tomkins, Catalans are a force to be reckoned with.
But the Perpignan outfit have not just relied on English guile but have been backed by the funds of passionate owner Bernard Guasch, an ex-player, and 15 of their 27-man squad hail from France. With local youngsters Arthur Mourgue and Mathieu Laguerre emerging, supported by veterans like Ben Garcia and Julian Bousquet, the future is bright.
One hundred and twenty-seven miles north-west lies Toulouse, a rival to the Dragons, who are forging their own path. After six years of toiling in the British lower leagues, now the blue and white appear ready and able for the jump to Super League.
Led by French coach Sylvain Houles they, much like Catalans, include a motley mix of players drawn from England, Australia, Wales, New Zealand, the Pacific and France. Despite being unable to play at home during the regular season because of Covid-19, Toulouse have been undefeated all year and will host Rovers at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
Championship play-off final 2021
- Teams: Toulouse vs Featherstone Rovers
- Venue: Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse
- Date: Sunday 10 October
- Kick-off time: 6pm
- TV channel: Sky Sports Arena (from 5.30pm)
- Live stream: FuboTV
A promotion playoff featuring a team representing a European city of around half a million people, against a team representing a former West Yorkshire mining village with a population of around 15,000, personifies rugby league’s own existential dilemma. A sport that is yearning to break out of its M62 origins, and has the chance to do so, but is reliant on the ball bouncing a specific way.
When Super League started in 1996 then CEO Maurice Lindsay ambitiously declared the goal was to have clubs in Barcelona, Milan and Paris. Sadly Paris Saint-Germain only lasted two years before going bust and the European dream was stillborn.
However, a quarter of a century later, rugby league finally again has the opportunity to spread its wings east.