By HAMISH NEAL
ANY cursory inspection at recent media coverage will tell you the coming week is a key battle of an on-going great war in the Australian elite level sporting landscape.
The Australia Football League (AFL) will stage a first round extravaganza at ANZ Stadium to officially welcome in their new side the Greater Western Sydney Giants. The Giants will match up against the Sydney Swans, the AFL’s other side in the city and the match will be played as a stand-alone fixture with the balance of the weekend’s game to be played from the following Thursday onwards.
Aside from the Super League split which saw two elite competitions of rugby league staged in Australia in 1997, they hype is unequaled. Reading the sheer volume of press dedicated to the war will often give you a feeling rugby league is been taken on by an army which is marching with unrelenting certainty to victory and will see the AFL lay waste to rugby league – and other sport for that matter.
However both of these examples pale into comparison from a very real threat to rugby league which was caused by a war, a real war, in the form of World War II.
Since its 1934 introduction by Jean Galia, a French rugby union international, rugby league had flourished in France.
In the south-west, in particular, the game took hold. As an example of this, a French representative side toured England in 1939 and became the first French team in any sport to beat an England team on home turf. Some 225 clubs had been established in a five-year period up until the war. This represented a huge explosion of growth for any sport let alone one of such infancy in a new country.
The May 1940 German invasion of France and subsequent occupation saw a perfect opportunity for those politically inclined to implement one of world’s sports most significant bans.
Enter Marshall Philippe Petain: A one-time decorated general in the French Army, Petain lead the Nazi-sympathetic Vichy Government who authorised a ban on rugby league with heavy influence at the time by local rugby union officials in the FFR (Fédération française de Rugby.)
The central political reason behind the move was the links rugby league had with the left-wing Popular Front party. The Popular Front, elected as government in May 1936 but dissolved in June 1937, included the French Communist Party amongst its member organisations. As Petain and his colleagues attempted to establish control over the French people, a ban on a game linked to communism and the country’s youth provided impeccable timing for local rugby union officials who lobbied hard to ensure a favourable outcome for themselves.
Rugby union in France needed an opening after a several years of bad news stories. Chief amongst these was the ban the national side had been given from the equivalent of the now Six Nations. This ban was for persistent violent conduct of players which was not making for good headlines, particularly amongst those promoting the games in schools. Clubs were collapsing each year and the 50 or so year history of the 15-a-side code was under threat.
The FFR lobby succeeded and a nationwide ban on rugby a treize during WWII highlights a period in the sport’s history when, now acknowledged, heavy political lobbying from those rugby union officials close to Petain and Vichy Government combined to crush a ‘working man’s’ game.
The foremost written work on this event in world sporting history is The Forbidden Game: The Untold story of French Rugby League authored by Mike Rylance, which charts the rise of rugby league in France before politics intervened. Telling the story of the supposed key decision-maker who was central to the ban, Rylance spoke with the late Jean Borotra.
Borotra, who was the 1928 Australian Open tennis champion, two-time Wimbledon winner and champ in his home grand slam in 1931, was given a role by the Vichy government to run a department which was within the Ministry of Family and Youth. Of the ban’s main supporter, Borotra commented “the banning of rugby league was decided, in 1941, by the director of sports, who was a union player, and who was convinced that the disappearance of rugby league would favour the development of rugby.”
As one-time Vichy sports minister Jean Ybarnégaray proclaimed “The fate of rugby league is clear. Its life is over and it will be quite simply deleted from French sport.”
The basics of rugby league were no longer under the sport’s control, grounds and assets were taken up primarily the 15-man game. The combined assets at the time were reported to be in the range of 9 million French francs, which equates to about AUD $1.7 million or GBP £1.14 million. The game could not be taught in schools. Players were also offered the opportunity to return to rugby union, a way of recanting on one’s death-bed if you will.
There are aspects of the ban which can’t be proven, and if Mike Rylance couldn’t find conclusive proof in his thorough research I won’t speculate in this piece.
Rugby league was made legal again in 1947, however the ban had caused immeasurable damage and the amount of assistance it received never really returned to pre-war times.
It wasn’t until 2002 when a French government inquiry confirmed one of world sport’s worst kept secrets “influential officials in the French Rugby Federation endeavoured to eliminate the competitor, which they claimed was a deviant form of rugby union.”
The inquiry finding came only decade after a ban had been lifted on calling the game rugby league (or rugby a treize) itself. Officially the sport could only be referred to as jeu a treize (meaning ‘for 13’ in French) up until 1991.
France does have a top-flight rugby league side with Catalan Dragons, who have existed in various guises since the establishment of the game in France in the 1930’s, now playing in the Super League. But one gets the feeling the 1940 ban set back the code for decades in France and lost generations of players, elite and amateur
The following sources were used to produced this snap-shot of the ban on Rugby League in France. For further insight into the story I urge you to check them out:
You can find links to buy The Forbidden Game: The Untold story of French Rugby League by Mike Rylance here: (there is a kindle option amongst them)
Heck even go buy yourself a Catalan Dragons jersey here and support the game in France: