Friday, 10 May 2013


Tomorrow, L'Equipe magazine's front page looks like this:

For those not versed in French, it says: "Dirty Story. How, during the Occupation, French rugby league was removed by the Vichy government, to the great benefit of it's 15-a-side cousin". The scrap of paper pictured is the decree from the secretary of state for education dissolving rugby league as of December 20, 1940, and all assets to be transferred to the ministry.

Now, anyone who has been around rugby league for a time will know this. If not, Mike Rylance's Forbidden Game is essential reading. In summary, the decree from above during the occupation of France was to the extent that professional sport was "incompatible" with the society Marshal Petain's government was trying to create. As such, rugby league and, bizarrely, badminton were banned. Professional cycling and boxing continued though, all of which makes the move look like a collaborationalist land-grab by the rugby union to stop the huge popularity of the fledgling 13-a-side game in it's tracks and reassert the authority that the upstart code was beginning to undermine.

After the war, the ban was overturned, but the seized assets were never returned - still haven't been - and, despite a 1950s surge in popularity, the momentum lost in establishing rugby league was a body-blow the game has always been struggling to recover from. Indeed, the sport was barred from using the word 'rugby' in it's name until the 1990s.

Ancient history then, yes? Well yes, but it's never really been addressed in France. There was an apology from government when the bar on the word 'rugby' was lifted, but that's it. The major media outlets - largely Paris-based, far from rugby league's south-western stronghold - have never covered it before, which is why this feels like a pretty big deal.

We wait to see what the body of the article throws up and whether it has anything new, over and above that which Rylance described in his book. Even if it doesn't, there's a sense that it's no longer sport's dark secret, that it's out in the open and a light can be shone on those responsible for this shameful chapter. I don't expect redress, nice though that would be, but an ability for those on both sides of the divide to talk about it openly and recognise the nefarious dealings that led to the ban would be a nice step forward.


While we're here, the other story trailed on the front page, that of NBA star Jason Collins coming out, is also interesting. Rugby league often trumpets it's inclusivity - justifiably so, a lot of the time - but it's a long time since Ian Roberts. Do we have an issue we need to talk about in this regard?

No comments: