A Brief Look at the History of Rugby in France
Rugby in France is very popular. It is the second most popular sport after football. The southern half of the country in particular is known for its fascination for the game. Though there are followers for both codes of the game – the rugby union and the rugby league – the former is a lot more popular than the latter.
Rugby in France was introduced by a group of British people who formed the Havre Athletic Club in 1872. The first major sporting event in which the French rugby team took part was the Paris Summer Olympics in 1900. The French team won the gold medal at the event. In 1905, France faced England for the first time in history. In 1910, the Home Nations Tournament was renamed the Five Nations by France. It was called so until 2000. Now it is called the Six Nations Championship.
The French rugby team took part in the Summer Olympics in 1920. Much to the surprise of the fans, it lost to the United States eight points to nil. It again took part in the 1924 Summer Olympics, but it could not win the gold medal as the U.S. was able to defend its championship successfully.
In 1931, the Rugby Football Union decided to ban the French rugby team because of its violent behavior. As a result, the French national team was expelled from the Five Nations Championship. In the following years, the number of rugby union clubs in France declined rapidly. The future of rugby in France looked bleak. This led to the formation of the French Rugby League.
In 1934, Jean Galia, a highly skilled rugby union player, established the rugby league as an alternative for the rugby union. Unlike the rugby union, the rugby league was played with 13 players instead of 15. It also did not emphasize on scrums and line outs as much as the rugby union did. Rugby in France became very popular again and a number of rugby league clubs were formed. In 1939, the national rugby league team won its first major international match against England. In the same year, the French rugby union team was invited to rejoin the Five Nations.
In 1941, the Vichy regime decided to ban the rugby league owing to the pressure from the rugby union. The rugby union stated that the league-style rugby in France was corrupting the French youth. Though the ban was lifted in 1949, the league was prohibited from using the term ‘rugby’ in its title and was forced to call itself ‘The Game of Thirteen’. This ban was repealed in 1991 and the league was finally allowed to call itself the ‘rugby league’.
One of the reasons why rugby in France is so popular is that they have a strong national team which is actually considered the strongest team in Europe by many. The national French rugby union team won its first Five Nations Championship in 1954. Ever since then, they have gone on to win the championship fourteen times and have managed to complete eight grand slams. They have, however, not won the Rugby World Cup ever since the tournament was inaugurated in 1987.
Rugby in France today is the second most widely watched sport. There are more than 1700 rugby union clubs and 150 rugby league clubs in the country. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters play and follow the game passionately. In 2002, the government established the National Rugby Center to further develop rugby in the country.