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So You Think You Know All About French Rugby (Part II)
Posted by southstander on April 06 2005 - 17:59:30

1938 Test
by Rob Peat

As well as welcoming Pia to Headingley next month, we’re off to Perpignan this year to play London, and from next year we’ll have the pleasure of annual fixtures against the Frenchman, but how much do you know about the game in France?

Over the next few weeks Puig-Aubert will try to enlighten us and in his second instalment, he talks about the beginnings of the game in France.

Chapter 2 - The Beginnings

By the early 1930s Rugby Union in France was a popular but deeply troubled sport. The game was officially amateur but in many areas was blatantly professional - much to the annoyance of the game’s administrators across the English Channel. Attendances were falling with players and spectators disillusioned with the increasing brutality and decreasing skill that the 15 a side code was exhibiting in France.

However, France’s Union administrators in FFR still employed a range of machinations to ensure that the French sporting public remained in ignorance of the charms of the 13 a side code.

As is often the case though it was Union’s own administrators - both sides of the channel - who provided the opportunity and one man who exploited it. The RFU had by this time failed to strangle the 13 man game in the UK but needed to guard the pretence of the game’s amateur ethos, so the blatant professionalism in France threatened the reputation of the game at home. They increasingly put pressure on the French to get their house in order, with some high profile players being sacrificed by the FFR in paying lip service to the RFU’s demands.

One such player was a Union back row international by the name of Jean Galia. Galia’s character is open to question and when crossed he was likely to respond with some venom. For him the route to revenge against the FFR lay in rugby league. Galia quickly gathered a team of FFR victims and players curious about this ‘running game’ who were invited to tour England. The 1934 expedition was a great success and demonstartion matches by English and Australian sides were hastilly arranged.

Leeds were one of the first sides to make the trip, as ‘Yorkshire’, but the tour by Salford provided the most lasting impact. As Salford began their tour news travelled quickly concerning the wonderful skills of the English treizistes and the French began to refer to them as ‘les diables rouge’ or ‘Red Devils’. As we know the nickname stuck and was later adopted by London’s favourite team: Manchester United!

Once they had seen what league had to offer the French public and players alike began to flock to the game. Sometimes individual players switched but normally it was entire clubs. Rugby league was made for the French: while many in Britain maintained a protestant, anglo-saxon anal obsession with technicalities, scrimmaging and kicking; the latins of France favoured uncompromising forward play and a cavalier willingness to run with the ball from any position.

Again the FFR and RFU accidentally helped matters with their response. The FFR began to hand out sine die bans to any player even rumoured to have had contact with the new code with many old scores settled by fabricated evidence. In this way they drove some of France’s best players to league. The RFU for their part led the home nations in suspending the FFR from international competition until they came back to ‘proper’ ways. This led the FFR to join a rival international rugby union body led by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

By the end of the 1930s union was in freefall and league was establishing itself as the dominant football code in France with 172 semi-professional clubs and a further 158 fully amateur.

However, the FFR’s drift to its more natural home with the right wing dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Romania was an ominous portent of what was to come: one of the most disgraceful episodes in sporting history.

Read Chapter 1 - Puig-Aubert here...

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