France v England u19 2022

Southern France has long been held to be a hotbed of rugby league, with expansionists keen on the potential of Elite One to give the rugby league world a third major league. On the heels of the England v. France rugby league test in Toulouse, and Stade Toulousain winning both the Top 14 and the Rugby Champions Cup in rugby union, it is an ideal time to cast a critical eye on the state of play in Southern France.

The French pyramid is certainly the most extensive one in Europe outside of England. 10 topflight teams and 10 second division teams (all teams in both competitions are in Southern France) sit atop a third and fourth division composed of assorted amateur clubs. But to speak of the top two divisions as being “Southern France” overstates the sport’s geographic reach. The Elite One covers about half of Southern France from East to West, with the combined top two divisions reaching only 300km north of the Spanish border (France is 1,000 km long north to south).

Meanwhile, fully half of the Top 14 are along the full southernmost stretch of France, running the full distance from Toulon to the Atlantic Coast. Five more topflight union clubs are at the northern edge of Southern France (e.g. Bordeaux). Another ten Pro D2 (RU’s second division) play across the full geographic spread of Southern France. Southern France is the full extent of French rugby league, but it is also the heart of French rugby union.

Elite One manages respectable attendances, with over 8,000 fans attending the title game in each of 2022 and 2023. Catalans Dragons averaged 9,123 fans a game in Perpignan in 2023, which placed them in the top half of Super League attendances. Toulouse Olympique have been drawing around 5,000 fans this year. Unfortunately, going to the match is the most reliable way to follow the teams. While most clubs stream their matches on YouTube, there is no TV presence in France for Elite One.

On the union side, Top 14 clubs averaged anywhere from 12,000 to 27,000 fans a match, with Pro D2 sides drawing from 5,000 to 10,000. Looking at the cities with the three biggest French rugby league clubs, Stade Toulousain average 19,000 per match, Perpignan averaged 13,533 fans in 2023-24, and US Carcassonne was outdrawing Elite One’s AS Carcassonne prior to the former’s relegation to the third division a year ago. So, while Southern France has a significantly rugby league presence, league is not the dominant code in the region, or even the cities that are home to its strongest clubs.

Catalans being a Super League stalwart and Toulouse Olympique’s continual presence near the top of the championship have brought exposure to the French game. Top French players in Elite One can now target not just the national team, but also spots on these squads. Simply by playing at these levels Catalans and Toulouse set an example for the rest of France to follow.

Another great strength of rugby league in Southern France is the beneficial cooperation it enjoys with rugby union (hear me out). Stade Toulousain are one of the best rugby union clubs in the Northern Hemisphere, having won the French topflight 23 times and the European Championship (which now also includes South African clubs) 6 times. Secure in their status and strength, the union club has helped rugby league for over a decade. They rented their 19,500-seat stadium Stade Ernest-Wallon to Catalans for a Super League match in June 2013, and in 2021 agreed to a ground-sharing agreement with Toulouse Olympique for the entirety of the 2020s. June’s test match between England and France was at least the fourth rugby test match played at Stade Ernest-Wallon since 2004.

Overall, there is much to build on in Southern France. However, a strong dose of realism is needed. Southern France is very much a developing region, and one where the rugby league remains light-years behind rugby union.

Christopher Hallenbrook is a political science professor in Southern California. After discovering rugby league in 2020, he was California RL's first touch judge in 2021. He was a founding board member of Pacific Coast Rugby League from 2022 to 2024.