Paris wrong place for launch but France now deserves World Cup - Dave Craven

WHEN John Kear coached in France – first with Paris St Germain and then the national side – he always sensed plenty of untapped potential there for rugby league to flourish.

Paris SG and Sheffield Eagles players enter the pitch for the start of the first Super League season at Stade Charetly in 1996.
Paris SG and Sheffield Eagles players enter the pitch for the start of the first Super League season at Stade Charetly in 1996.

Although the Paris Super League experiment flopped, with the club disbanding in 1997 after just two seasons of the new summer competition, there were signs that the sport could take hold given the right ingredients.

Of course, that has come to fruition since with Catalans Dragons – introduced in 2006 – going on to finish top of Super League for the first time last season when they also reached a maiden Grand Final having also lifted the Challenge Cup four years ago.

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Moreover, Toulouse Olympique embark on their own Super League adventure next month after earning promotion and, with this in mind, last week’s news that the 2025 Rugby League World Cup will be held in France is further evidence of how the game there is on the rise.

John Kear. (Photo: George Wood/Getty Images)

Kear, now in charge of Bradford Bulls but also Wales coach since 2014, told The Yorkshire Post: “It is a great opportunity for France.

“French rugby league is having a bit of a renaissance with the success of Toulouse and Catalans and their Elite Championship seems to be blossoming, too.

“On the domestic front, they are obviously doing things right and progressing and I think something like this – the World Cup – will further progress it on the national front.

“It will certainly assist Toulouse and Catalans and the game as a whole.

Wigan stand-off Henry Paul takes a pass from Mick Cassidy on his way to one of his three tries against Paris St. Germain in a league match at Central Park on Sunday 5th of May 1996. Wigan won the game 76-8.

“But also, we have the World Cup in England, and then in Australia, then in England…

“This will be different: it’ll be reminiscent of a genuine World Cup as it will have the South Sea Islands, all our home nations and it will give us an extended taste of what it’s like in France.

“I’m certain anyone involved will enjoy it and it will benefit the game worldwide but particularly in France.”

It will be the first time since 1972 the country has hosted the tournament which it famously helped introduce, staging the inaugural World Cup in 1954.

Kear, who coached England in the 2000 World Cup and is a big believer in international rugby league, knows from his own experience there about how the tournament will be embraced.

“Back in 1996, when I was in France with Paris St Germain, I did think there was real scope for rugby league,” he added.

“I felt the only thing wrong with the French team at the beginning of Super League – ie Paris – was playing in Paris.

“I was lucky enough to be involved but what we used to do, in the early part of the week, we’d train in the south of France down near Toulouse.

“It was a place a bit like Loughborough here. There was massive interest locally in the team but then when you went up to play in northern France and Paris, nobody knew what it was.

“The fans came in on the back of good marketing and a cheap night out, which it was as a lot of tickets were given away.

“But I am certain they’d have got a more consistent crowd of eight or nine thousand – which we’re seeing at Catalans now – if they’d put it somewhere in the south of France.

“In fairness, I do think rugby league did learn its lesson there as has been seen with Catalans and Toulouse since. But I always felt there was a possibility there simply because of the interest in the south of France.”

PSG famously kicked off the very first season of Super League with a memorable opening night 30-24 win over Sheffield Eagles at Stade Sébastien Charléty on March 29, 1996.

Almost 18,000 fans attended but they then went on a torrid run of defeats including a 76-8 hammering by Wigan Warriors.

Castlefordian Kear, just 41 at the time and still yet to secure his first major coaching role, was working for the Rugby Football League in player performance when he was parachuted in mid-season to try and alleviate their lack of form. He recalled: “They started off with that blaze of glory against Sheffield and then they struggled.

“A guy called Michel Mazaré, who I liked a great deal and knew through working with the French Federation – I was working for the RFL at the time – he asked for some assistance and said he’d step down to the assistant role if he got it.

“It was (RFL chief executive) Maurice Lindsay who basically sat me in his office and told me he had an exciting project for me: you have to keep Paris St Germain in the Super League!

“I had 14 weeks over there and Michel was my assistant while Dave Ellis was there as well. Maurice made sure I’d be looked after if I kept them up and, fortunately for me, I did.

“It was a strange way of how it all happened but it was a great three and half months of my life.

“It really was a great learning experience. They had different clubs in the south of France and, when I first went there, the (Paris) players were playing in the French Elite competition in midweek and then Super League on the weekend. It was bloody nuts! But it was the dream of having the capital city of France involved.

“That’s all I thought was wrong with it: they played the games in the wrong place.”

The following year – when Kear had moved on to take over at Sheffield Eagles – Paris finished second bottom again but amassed six wins.

Oldham were relegated but PSG – beset by financial issues, low crowds and a scandal over playing contracts – eventually folded.

Kear went on to famously guide Sheffield to the biggest Challenge Cup final shock in history in 1998 and lifted the trophy again with Hull FC in 2005 ahead of spells with Wakefield Trinity and Batley Bulldogs.

But he also took charge of France.

“It was Michel, who was working at the French Federation, who asked me to go over there again,” recalled the 67-year-old.

“I only did it for one Test – which we won against South Africa in ’97, by the way! - but Andy Goodway became Great Britain coach and I was appointed as England coach.

“My first games for England were actually against France.

“That was basically in preparation for me doing the 2000 World Cup.

“I did the ’99 two games against France before that.

“I did the France thing as a favour to Michel but I had every intention of staying there.

“When Joe Lydon, who was the RFL performance director at the time, rang me up, though, and offered me the England job, you just can’t turn down the opportunity to coach England.

“It doesn’t happen to many people and it doesn’t matter how many games you do: once you do that, it’s on your CV isn’t it?”

France and England, of course, lock horns again in Bolton at the World Cup this autumn – but then all eyes will turn to 2025.