Fortunately for almost all of my readers, I have reached the limit of the French taught to me in one semester of university in just the title. I’m still not sure if I should have used the definite article, so this post will be in English but it will be about French rugby league. This is fortuitous, as the Elite 1 Championship kicks off with a Magic Weekend in Carcassonne on very early Sunday morning.
I think rugby league nerds, like me, find the idyllic notion of French rugby league to be very appealling. France is cool and exotic, particularly to Australians, in a way that rugby league generally is not. I think adopting a substantial portion of the French rugby league vocabulary would give the sport a much needed touch of class: talonneur for hooker, pilier for prop, demi for half and so on.
The unfortunate reality is French rugby league has the same cultural notions as in the Anglosphere but this is masked by an impenetrable veil of français and a lack of money, quality and prestige, which leads to minimal coverage.
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France was the fifth nation to join the rugby league fraternity in the mid-1930s. Clubs are located predominantly in the Occitanie, a region home to roughly five million people that has very approximate parallels to Spain’s Catalonia. Armed with a per capita GDP that is only bettered by Australia out of rugby league’s economies, France has been given all the advantages to succeed and failed to capitalise.
We can blame the Vichy government as much as we want but France’s golden age on the international stage occurred in the early 1950s, well after liberation in August 1944. Instead of developing into a force that should now be on par with at least New Zealand, France has slid inexorably backwards due to a lack of interest, a lack of investment and the rise of professional rugby union. It took forty years to simply win the right to refer to the game as rugby.
France finished 0-3 at the last World Cup and put up a 1-2 performance at the 9s in October. These dismal results have been made worse still by the current Chanticleers tour, where captain Jason Batieri walked away, the national side absent fourteen pros was dismantled by the Junior Kangaroos and then racist comments allegedly made by the chair of the Fédération Française de Rugby à XIII (FFR) were leaked. A lawsuit is in the offing. The next world ranking update would probably see France slide down from sixth but Samoa are somehow just as impotent on the field.
This should be a wake up call. Many of us hope that France will, at some point, turn it all around. There is absolutely no basis for this belief. At least, Theo Fages won this year’s Super League grand final in the halves for St Helens and there are plenty of Frenchmen plying their trade for the Catalan Dragons. Few, if any, have made the leap across to the NRL.
Despite this, I think we all benefit from learning about the wider world of rugby league. I didn’t know anything about the Elite 1, other than it existed and I own a Palau jersey, until a few weeks ago, so I’m going to share what I’ve learnt from Wikipedia and the excellent French rugby league resource, Treize Mondial.
The top domestic premiership is the Elite 1 championship, which comprises nineteen rounds of the regular season and three weeks of barrages (finals). The season starts in November, with the top six progressing to finals in June. Elite 1 sits atop the French rugby league pyramid, with optional promotion and relegation to Elite 2 and the National Divisions split into conferences underneath. Clubs compete in the Lord Derby Cup, the French counterpart to England’s Challenge Cup. Elite 1 is semi-pro but is considered below the RFL’s League 1.
A local TV deal has been struck for the upcoming season. Some games will be available for streaming live on viaOccitanie at what are, quite frankly, ungodly hours to be awake in Australia to watch fourth division European rugby league.
There are ten clubs competing in Elite 1 for the 2019-20 season, with eight located in Occitania, Villenueve in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Avignon on the border but officially in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
Only Toulouse can claim to be a city by global standards. While I am usually critical of rugby league’s tendency to embed itself in suburbs and small towns at the expense of focussing on larger metropolitan areas, there are some fairly substantial differences between Pyreneean France and western Sydney.
ALBI RUGBY LEAGUE
Somehow rugby league has managed to find itself, even in France, in a coal mining town. Albi was one of the first places that coal extraction was attempted on an industrial scale in the nineteenth century. In 2010, the cité épiscopale was UNESCO Heritage listed, including the 13th century Sainte-Cécile cathedral and the Berbie Palace on the banks of the Tarn. The irony being that Albigensian, the demonym for the people of Albi, is most closely associated with heresy. Catharism touched many French rugby league towns during the Middle Ages.
As much as coal mining is a recurring theme, every rugby league competition seems to have a club nicknamed the Tigers. Les Tigres have five national championships to their name but it has been over four decades since the last in 1977. Their one and only cup came in 1974. Since then, in 2008, the original Albi club went bankrupt and dissolved, ending 74 years of history. The new Albi club was reinstated in the second division, rising to the first for the 2015-16 season, where they have finished mid-table each season.
SO AVIGNON XIII
Did you know that there was for a time two Popes? It happens more often than you would think but in this specific case, the Western Schism in the fourteenth century saw a Pope base himself out of the city of Avignon. This is possibly the only rugby league city on the face of the earth that can boast having been home to a Pope.
However, we are more interested in their treizistes. The Avignonais side play in blue and white as the Bisons. Avignon have had some success, including five cups, the most recent in 2013, and their first and only Elite 1 title in 2018. Avignon advanced through the semi-finals, despite losing 23-16, after St Esteve Catalan were disqualified for fielding ineligible players.
Carcassonne is the only place out of the ten listed that I’ve actually visited and the only one with a popular board game named after it. Carcassonne boasts a bunch of cool things: a walled medieval city (check out the torture museum), probably the nicest jersey in the Elite 1, and it was the home of Puig Aubert, star of the 1950s touring French national team that beat Australia in a Test series. His statue adorns the Stade Albert Domec, the city’s rugby ground.
The Canaries, known that because of the striking yellow colour of their kit and logo, have fifteen Coupes de France, the most of any club, and eleven national titles, equal most with pre-merger Catalans. Carcassonne are the reigning Lord Derby Cup holders, beating St Esteve Catalan 22-6 in front of a crowd of 4,000 in Perpignan.
FC LEZIGNAN XIII
Les Sangliers (Wild boars), Les Moulins
Lezignan-Corbieres is a fairly typical French town of around 11,000. It has a cathedral, wine making facilities, municipal baths and convenient access to the motorway. It also boasts a good rugby league team. Les Sangliers have the fourth most national titles, with seven total including four in a row from 2008 to 2011. This is the longest streak of any club, a feat shared only with the 1982 to 1985 XIII Catalans. Six cups also sit in the trophy case, with the most recent silverware won in 2015.
Les Grizzlies, Les Blanquetiers
Limoux is probably more famous for its local sparking white wine than its football team. Blanquette de Limoux is an appellation d’origine contrôlée, meaning that, like champagne, true Blanquette de Limoux can only be made from certain grapes, grown in a particular area and processed in a specified way. The wine is the centrepiece of the Carnival of Limoux, which bills itself as France’s longest festival.
Speaking of those fifteen, Limoux have been one of the more recently successful teams, winning back to back national titles in 2016 and 2017, adding to their sole previous championship from 1968. In the cup, Les Blanquetiers have been more Poulidoresque, winning two in 1996 and 2008, but also losing ten grand finals in their sixty-eight year history, the third most of any team.
Palau (pronounced “pah-lo”) is not to be confused with the Pacific island nation (pronounced “pah-lau”) or any number of small French towns of the same name. The Broncos are from Palau-del-Vidre at the foot of the Pyrenees, population 3,226, approximately twenty kilometres south of Perpignan. Fun fact: Palau hosts an international glass festival.
Palau have only recently been promoted to Elite 1, taking the step up in 2013 after dominating Elite 2 for the previous five seasons. The team has never won the national championship or the Lord Derby Cup. The 2018-19 season was the Broncos’ best to date, finishing seventh.
ST ESTEVE XIII CATALAN
Les Baby Dracs
XIII Catalan were founded in 1934 in Perpignan. In 1965, a mere six kilometres away, local rivals Saint-Estève were founded on the other side of La Têt. Catalan won eleven national championships and Saint-Estève six. In 2000, the clubs merged into a Perpignanais super-club, then called Union Treiziste Catalan. UTC were granted a licence to join Super League for the 2006 season, ahead of Toulouse and Villeneuve. They’ve remained there ever since, winning France’s first Challenge Cup in 2018.
In France, UTC continued in Elite 1, winning the 2005 and 2019 championships and the Lord Derby in 2016. The club was renamed St Esteve XIII Catalan and plays out of the Stade Municipal in Saint-Estève. The Baby Dragons serve as a feeder club for the Super League club.
RC ST GAUDENS XIII
Les Ours (Bears)
The rugby league club was founded in 1958 but the town traces its history back to the Roman era. Saint-Gaudens is named for Gaudens, a fifth century martyr who was decapitated by Visigoths and who I cannot find any other details about. The Route d’Occitanie, a professional cycling race, visits Saint-Gaudens often and has been won by the top names in the sport.
Saint-Gaudens XIII have four French national titles – 1970, 1974, 1991 and 2004 – and three cups – 1973, 1991 and 1992. Member troubles hit Saint-Gaudens in 2011 and the team was forced to sit out the 2011-12 season. The club returned the following season in Elite 2 before rejoining Elite 1 in 2016. Les Ours have yet to qualify for the finals since their return.
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE ELITE
Toulouse is the largest city represented in Elite 1, with a metro population of 1.3 million. The senior team are currently in their second attempt to climb the RFL pyramid. The first attempt saw them spend three seasons in the Championship from 2009 to 2011. Following their fifth and sixth national titles in back-to-back years and a cup/championship double in 2014, Toulouse rejoined League One in 2016. Olympique immediately secured promotion to the Championship, where they have remained since the 2017 season.
In 2016, to keep a Toulousain presence in the top tier of French rugby league, the then Toulouse Jules-Julien Broncos were taken over and promoted from Elite 2 to serve as the reserve team. The consequence of this is that the junior Toulouse side is not very good and will require some time before they are able to challenge for Elite 1 honours.
Depending on which source you look at, some still refer to the team as the Broncos, as a nod to the previous incarnation, but the club seems to prefer Toulouse Olympique Elite.
VILLENEUVE XIII RL
The Leopards hail from Villenueve-sur-Lot in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, just a stone’s throw over the border from Occitania. This is not to be confused with the other ten thousand French towns named Villenueve. The bridge across the river gave the town some prominence during the Middle Ages, as one of the few crossings of the Lot. In modern times, I personally don’t believe it but French Wikipedia says Villenueve-sur-Lot was a hot spot for jazz.
Villeneuve are one of the more historically successful French clubs, having won the national premiership and the Lord Derby Cup nine times each. Villeneuve is the third on the all-time list for both competitions, behind Catalans and Carcassonne, and both were last won in 2003. This was the end of an exceptional five year run for the club, including three championship/cup doubles. A bankruptcy in 2005 followed, with a failed bid for a Super League licence in 2006, which eventually went to Catalans.
Statistics are pretty hard to come by but I did manage to dig out results for 2016-17 season onwards and tries scored for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons*. From that, I was able to construct form (short term) and class (long term) Elo ratings and Poseidon ratings.
The ratings as at the end of the 2018-19 season are:
While I can’t do some of the high level analysis that I do for the NRL, with class ratings we can at least set the Disappointment Line. This is calculated by determining how many games a team of that class rating will win against league average opposition. If a team wins more regular season games than the line set, their season is officially pas décevant.
Note that the Elite 1 uses a bonus point system. Three points are awarded for a win and one point for a loss of twelve or less. Palau finished last season with just five wins but amassed eleven bonus points out of fourteen losses. On that basis, I’ve also set a line in terms of competition points (three times the line), which might prove a bit on the easy side to beat.
With the points difference from last season, we can measure each team’s fortuitousness. When teams outperform their Pythagorean expectation, they typically (but not always) revert towards the mean in the following season and vice versa. The greater the difference the actual and Pythagorean wins, the stronger the reversion typically is.
La saison à venir
Even with these simple ratings, we can do simulations. I’m in the process of rebuilding all of my datasets to be more organised and convenient, so I’m going to use the Elite 1 season as a test for some changes.
Like the Stocky, these sims are Monte Carlo simulations. The sims are “cold”, where ratings do not change within the simulation, whereas previously the sims were “hot”. This greatly reduces the amount of computational power required and there’s philosophical reasons for preferring cold over hot.
To test the ability of the sims, I used the ratings from the end of the 2017-18 season to see how well they predicted the known outcomes of the 2018-19 season.
These simulations are never going to be able to see what we don’t know, especially with the limited information at our disposal for Elite 1. There’s always surprise packets in every season. The important thing is to get the other teams that aren’t surprise packets roughly correct.
Considering that we were working off the 2017-18 ratings as inputs to the 2018-19 season, with no considerations for team changes or any other background noise, that level of accuracy is not too bad.
The mean absolute error (MAE) was 2.1 wins for both form and Poseidon sims, with a successful prediction of the eventual champion, St Esteve Catalan. The sims were too down on Carcassonne and Villenueve, while overly expectant of defending champions Avignon. A weighted average of Poseidon and form (ratio 2:1) delivered the lowest MAE at 1.9. Introducing the results of the class sim only increases the error.
Trialling this in one very specific instance is obviously problematic (I can only assume this what the French almost definitely don’t call le bias de petit montant) and I won’t be extrapolating this particular method without testing on multiple competitions across multiple seasons but it’s a start.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, plugging in the 2018-19 ratings to the 2019-20 draw gives us the following:
The 2019-20 season is looking far more open than the 2018-19 season did, even if the simulations belie how close Les Canaris came to a double. Whereas the Baby Dracs were outright favourites in premiership percentages, if not regular season wins, this year we have at least three front-runners with two more close behind. Treize Mondial have named Carcassonne their pre-season favourites for the title (assuming the mayonnaise comes together), and I’m inclined to agree, although St Esteve Catalan and Limoux look to be in the mix.
Lezignan and Albi look good for the top six. Palau, who are primed to take a step forward, and Villenueve will likely scrap out for the final place in the barrages. Unless there’s a surprise resurgence, we’re expecting Avignon, St Gaudens and Olympique to continue to struggle. Their ratings at the end of the last season do not hold much promise. Avignon, having signed Jack Payne from Mounties, probably have the most upside potential.
I don’t plan to keep this up to date with every round but will likely check in on progress and update ratings once a month or so. It will be an interesting follow.
* More results would be better if anyone has them. French Wikipedia doesn’t list the results in order, which is not helpful, and the FFR website is a mess. Contact me if you have something you think might be useful.