France Prime Minister Jean Castex last week confirmed that they will be hosting the 17th Rugby League World Cup in 2025. The announcement was made in Paris, where the confirmation of government support towards a €59m budget has enabled the French rugby league federation to activate their bid. “The rooster you can see on top of the trophy is going to sing again in 2025,” proclaimed Castex.
Why is it being held in France?
The tournament had been provisionally promised to the USA only for the promoters behind that bid to collapse following the loss-making England v New Zealand Test in Denver in 2018. Desperate to avoid returning to Australia and New Zealand so soon after 2017, and fulfilling their policy of pursuing G7 markets, IRL chief Troy Grant knew France was the obvious option and provided “enormous potential”. He convinced Luc Lacoste, the president of the French rugby league federation, to take the baton and run.
Why are France saying 2025 will be the biggest World Cup ever?
Because it will be. There are four tournaments, an increase of one on this year’s World Cup in England, with the men’s event running alongside women’s, wheelchair and a new Under-19 competitions. Not only that, but all four will have 16 competing teams, meaning there will be 64 teams in France compared to 32 in England this year and just 20 at the previous World Cup in 2017.
Has France hosted the World Cup before?
The whole concept of a Rugby League World Cup was first mooted in France in 1934 and came to fruition 20 years later thanks to the visionary secretary of their federation Paul Barriere, 33 years before the first rugby union version. In 1954, a weakened Great Britain side shocked even themselves by winning it at a time when only four nations played the code, and each had beaten each other within the previous two years. France also hosted it in 1972 and staged a group in 2000.
With 128 matches, how many venues will they need?
“We are looking for a total of 40 host cities and 50 base camps cities and already have 38 candidates,” says France2025 director general Michel Wiener. “We are confident. Many more cities have contacted us after the official announcement. I will travel to each city by the end of June to present our project and hear about the reasons behind their candidatures – their sporting, economic, touristic and societal ambitions.” For ecological reasons, there will be regional hubs, with a promise to avoid any need for domestic flights.
New Zealand players do the Haka before their match against France at the Rugby League World Cup in 1954. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Which big cities will host games?
Not many but, of the eight cities listed so far, four are among France’s largest – Paris, Toulouse, Nice and Bordeaux – plus Martigues which is next to Marseille airport. The focus is on taking France2025 to places that will miss out on the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and Paris Olympics in 2024. In a plan to boost local economies, 90% of matches will be in towns that would not normally be considered for international events.
So the crowds will be small?
Not at the major games. France held hugely successful games at the Rugby League World Cup in 2013, with the visits of New Zealand to Avignon and Samoa to Perpignan selling out. The French group in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup was arguably the highlight of an otherwise miserable tournament. France average crowds of around 14,000 for major home games and should see five-figure gates in many grounds. They are targeting an average of 11,000 in the men’s tournament and hope to sell more than 800,000 tickets in total, with most below €30.
Is it all going to be in the southern rugby belt?
Not at all. The tournaments will be well spread: from Arras near Lens in the north-east and Vannes in Brittany, down past a cluster of venues around Paris, through the likes of Limoges and Montlucon in the middle of the country, to Perpignan by the Spanish border, Nice along the Mediterranean coast from Monaco, and across to Besancon in the east, nestled between Dijon and the Swiss border.
How many of these are rugby league towns?
Only six of the towns that stage regular professional rugby league have applied so far, although Wiener expects Avignon to bid soon. League fans will be pleased to see Albi, Carcassonne, Villeneuve-sur-Lot and Limoux already on the list. Of the seemingly leftfield applicants, Montauban are one of France’s six wheelchair rugby league clubs, while Begles have amateur men’s and women’s teams. But many local authorities simply want to be part of something exciting and unusual.
Why all the fuss about Vichy being on the bid list?
Vichy, a town between Clermont-Ferrand and Lyon, housed the collaborationist government during the second world war that banned rugby league, confiscated all of its assets and handed them to rugby union. Given France’s difficulties in dealing with this dark history, it was ground-breaking to hear Castex talk about rugby league “managing to survive the fateful Vichy regime”. Federation chairman Lacoste added: “I asked everyone to be forward-looking and to keep an eye on what happened before – Vichy is the same. It looks forward, it does not look back.” There are several other familiar places with things to offer beyond rugby league: racing mecca Le Mans, Alpine ski resort Chambery near Geneva, while the Catholic holy town of Lourdes is the furthest south-west venue.
A France player at the Rugby League World Cup in 2017. Photograph: Mark Nolan/Getty Images
Why are there not more major stadiums?
Organisers have learned from previous tournaments that, rather than risk small crowds rattling around big stadiums in cities that are spoiled with weekly elite sporting fare, some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments can be created from a few thousand crammed into humble surroundings. Just think of the joyous scenes in Rochdale, Bristol and Workington in 2013, and in Cairns and Darwin in 2017.
How will teams qualify?
The IRL are expected to confirm that only the semi-finalists from this year’s World Cup will definitely be at 2025, bringing to an end the farcical handing of automatic places at the next World Cup to the quarter-finalists of the last one. That system saw Samoa qualify for 2021 despite only getting one point in 2017 thanks to a scratchy draw with Scotland, who themselves would have missed out on an automatic place at the 2017 tournament despite gaining five points in 2013 if Italy had beaten Tonga. Qualifiers for 2025 have already started and, with Covid setting everything back a year, bigger nations will still be joining that process in autumn 2024.
So will France have to qualify?
No. The IRL have told France they will be there automatically as hosts in all four tournaments. France’s low ranking has given them an incredibly tough World Cup group this year; they will have to beat England or Samoa to reach the quarter-finals. But, with Sydney Roosters guru Trent Robinson as director, expect them to put an end to two decades of embarrassing international displays.
Could France win it?
No chance but, with more Super League players than ever, they should have their best side since the early 1990s before Super League left them behind. The Catalans backs, Arthur Mourgue and Mathieu Laguerre, and Toulouse centre Mathieu Jussaume should all have played another 100 Super League games by the time the tournament kicks off. Last year France coach Laurent Frayssinous only had around 20 Super League players to choose from; that number has leapt with the promotion of Toulouse, and should keep rising.
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