French rugby league ball

The Forbidden Game: How Nazi-Aligned Vichy France Banned A Rival Sport

— By Zack Wilson

It is one of the greatest sporting injustices ever perpetrated, yet not many have heard of it. During World War Two, one of the victims of the Vichy French regime that acted in collaboration with the occupying forces of Nazi Germany was a sport called rugby league. 

That history includes one of the 20th century’s most egregious sporting outrages; a tale of how a regime that openly collaborated with Nazi Germany used the apparatus of an authoritarian state to ban one of its rivals. 

Rugby’s Great Split: England 1895

The history of rugby as a sport is a story of complexity and, above all, division. Today, there are two rugby ‘codes’; union, the older variation, and what is often viewed as its lesser cousin – rugby league. 

There are differences between the codes today, ranging from the number of players per team to how the breakdown is handled, but the true division runs much deeper than what happens on the pitch.

Clubs in the North of England were run by businessmen, often originally from working class backgrounds, with players who represented the same class. In the south, the story was very different: the sport was run and played by upper class sons of privilege. 

A clear division took place: in the south, participants could be involved in rugby without a need for financial recompense, instead pursuing sport for its moral and even near-divine benefits. “It was seen as a part of the moral education of the schoolboys. It was part of a philosophy called Muscular Christianity, which placed the whole idea that one should work for the team, learn to give and take orders, and learn to sacrifice oneself in some ways,” Tony Collins, Emeritus Professor of History at De Montfort University and the UK’s foremost academic in the field of rugby history, explains.

In the working class north, however, far more human requirements dominated – a need to work to survive; an issue almost irrelevant in the ruling south. 

Eventually, the building tension erupted, with the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back being one of ‘broken time’ payments. These payments had meant that players could be compensated financially for missing work on a Saturday morning in order to play; a sensible step to most, but untenable to the south. 

“The idea that you would play this sport, which was a way of developing character for young men, for money cut completely against the grain,” Collins continues. “Sport should be played for the moral qualities it taught players. There was a deep-rooted hostility towards payment for players.”

It was not just morality that was leading the way, however – classism and a thirst for control was also rife. There was a genuine concern in the south that payment for players would mean the sport’s growth in the north would be almost exponential, and that they would, as Collins states, “lose control of the sport to those people who came from a lower society class – factory workers, miners, dockers.” Such individuals being seen to compete, or even – shock horror – achieve parity, with the privately-educated southern teams offended many an ego, and even threatened the entire social structure in the eyes of the elite. 

In 1895, the tension spilled over: a group of northern English clubs, mainly from Yorkshire and Lancashire, decided that they had had enough of the gentleman amateurs who controlled rugby union at that time.

In the George Hotel in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, those clubs voted to split from the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and form the Northern Union, which would eventually become the Rugby Football League. 

George Hotel rugby league

The reality of “professionalism”

In many ways, though, professionalism was a mirage. The full-time professional rugby league player would remain a rarity in Britain until the 1990s, with the early rugby league players retaining full-time employment outside of the game.

Hypocritically, payments were also made available to those playing in rugby union. The difference, however, was the transparency: in the north, payment was an open matter; in the south, it was hidden from view, and never spoken of or acknowledged. 

The split became ingrained, taking on a regional flavour all of its own. There are towns in northern England in the rugby league heartlands of West and East Yorkshire, west Lancashire and parts of Cumbria where if you say the word ‘rugby’ then the implicit assumption is that you mean rugby league. This is the reverse of much of the rest of England, where “rugby” will always mean union, a fact reinforced by a southern-dominated media who rarely – even to this day – rarely acknowledge the second, northern code. 

The forests of division we see today, however, were mere seeds over a century ago, as the sport crossed the Channel – and took a step into what can only be described as rugby league’s darkest hour. 

The Greatest Game Spreads to France

In the 1920s, French rugby union was not in a great state. The game had become popular in France in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, especially in the south and south west. But it was mired in controversy. Beset by accusations that it had become too violent on the pitch, there was also frequent crowd trouble off it. However, the same thorn that had cleaved the English version of the sport would ultimately be the one to force the issue in France, too.

Tony Collins notes, in his book ‘Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain’: “The French had always had an ambiguous relationship with the Anglo-Saxon concept of amateurism.” Dissension caused by the issue of professionalism had led to a split in French rugby in 1931, when 12 clubs broke from the FFR to form the Union Francaise de Rugby Amateur. This move was, at least ostensibly, to protect the French game from the kind of accusations of professionalism that had led to the game splitting in two in England back in the 1890s. 

The FFR would continue to play internationals against Germany, Italy and Romania – games that were in themselves pretty worthless as sporting contests, but which give an interesting indication as to where the governing body’s political sympathies lay during those dark days of the 1930s. 

Eventually, French rugby fans began to crave the thrill of genuine international competition, and in December 1933 an alternative presented itself. The England rugby league side took on Australia, and a nation fell in love. By April 1934, The Ligue Francaise de Rugby a Treize had been founded, thanks in part to efforts from rugby league pioneer Jean Galia. Galia, a businessman as well as a rugby player, saw the business opportunities that a faster form of rugby that relied on skills over brawn could present in France. Just as in northern England, it was a coalition of business enterprise and collectivist working class spirit that would see the league grow rapidly in France. 

By the end of the governing body’s first season of existence, it had 29 clubs. By the end of the second season, that number had expanded to 171. By the 1938/39 season, 225 rugby league clubs were present in France. 

That rise in audience, however, was a cause of concern for those who were still championing union. As French journalist Henri Garcia noted in his book ‘Champagne Rugby’:  “As rugby league went up, so rugby union declined. The new rugby, bright, fast and sparkling, drew all the union stars one by one, for they were weary of poor quality internationals against Germany or Romania.”

Every village and every small town soon had a rugby league club that became the focus of community activity. Inevitably, once sports become mass spectator sports elements of commercialism come to the fore. Players want a share of the revenue that they generate, and also to be rewarded for providing the spectators with entertainment. 

Worse still for the governing authorities, French rugby league was already being associated with the progressive rather than the reactionary wing of domestic politics. In 1938, the influential Narbonne rugby union club defected to rugby league. This seemed somehow appropriate for a club whose players, after they had won the 1936 French championship, celebrated by singing The Internationale on the pitch. 

Rugby league continued to thrive in a volatile period of French history, and became strongly associated with the Popular Front – a political movement in France that opposed the reactionary, fascist and authoritarian forces that were coming to power in many parts of Europe at that time. Rugby league was part of a cultural shift in France that saw a leftward tilt in politics, with the forces of French conservatism seeing the game as part of a deplorable move away from the traditional values of their nation.

Results soon followed the popular shift towards league. Rugby league continued to flourish throughout the 1930s. So much so, in fact, that on February 25, 1939, just months before the outbreak of war in Europe, France beat England at rugby league for the first time – an amazing result considering how recently the game had been established there. The glow of success would not last long. As World War Two loomed, rugby league’s perilous situation was about to go from bad to worse.

Jeu a Treize: Rugby League Falls Victim to Fascism

By Rostislav Botev – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4316067

As war rolled over France in 1939 and 1940, there were dark days on the horizon not just for the nation, but for rugby league too. After the Germans had beaten the Allies and occupied France, the country was divided into two zones. Occupied France was the northern half of the country, while the rugby playing heartlands of the south fell under the authority of the pro-Nazi Vichy Government. The leader of that government, Philippe Pétain, associated rugby league with everything that he and his associates felt was wrong with France. The 13-man code was living on borrowed time.

Under the leadership of former Wimbledon tennis champion Jean Borotra, a government department called the Commissariat de General a l’Education Generale et Sportive was set up. It was part of the Ministry of Family and Youth, which was headed by Borotra’s friend Jean Ybarnegaray.  Part of the Commissariat’s remit was to encourage young people to play sport according to what were seen as noble amateur principles, as a way of rectifying the lack of physical fitness and discipline that many believed had been responsible for France’s defeat to Germany.

Borotra, a Basque who had some English ancestry and had been married to an Englishwoman, had a lot of sympathy for the kind of ‘amateur’ principles that were supposed to underpin rugby union. He also wielded considerable power, thanks to the lack of parliamentary process that had resulted from the imposition of Nazi hegemony in France.

Sport was now to be viewed as a kind of moral crusade, and there was no place in it for professionalism – or even ‘shamateurism’, which had been established in French rugby union before the War. Ybarnegaray saw his department as a vehicle for re-training French youth, and playing for money was certainly not part of his plan.

It was clear that rugby league was in the department’s sights almost as soon as Petain was voted to full powers to rule the non-occupied part of France. A newspaper headline ran ‘No more professional sport’, with the article it headed summarising Ybarnegaray’s first decision as minister, which had been announced in a communiqué dated July 13. There would be no more professional soccer, wrestling or rugby, with boxing and cycling also being considered for bans on professionalism. 

It was obvious to anyone who knew what was meant by ‘rugby’. The FFR, which controlled French rugby union, had always maintained an ‘amateur’ status. Rugby league was simply viewed by the government as the professional version of the same sport, and it would be the one to suffer the most.

Borotra set up a committee in August 1940 that was intended to study the question of amateurism and professionalism in French sport. There were representatives from tennis, fencing, soccer and Olympic sports on the committee, one of whom was Jules Rimet. Borotra wrote to Rimet before the committee met stating that his own views on professionalism were that it should disappear completely, though he did consider a special situation for soccer, in order to maintain France’s international strength in that sport.

It surprised few people that one of the committee’s first recommendations after it reported back was that professional sport should disappear. A period of grace of three years was extended to soccer, boxing, pelota and cycling, ostensibly so that the elite ranks in those sports had time to be replaced. Professional sport was to be viewed as an enemy of the state, with noble amateurs in every sport now expected to live up to anachronistic notions of ‘chivalry’.

But both Ybarnegaray and Borotra had links to rugby union. Although Ybarnegaray was mainly interested in the Basque sport of pelota, there were strong links in the Basque region between rugby union and pelota. The two sports shared the same headquarters in Bayonne, as well as a joint weekly publication and many of the same match officials. A close friend of Ybarnegaray, George Darhan, was to become president of Aviron Bayonnais, a union club that had lost many players to rugby league. It was also the club where Borotra had played rugby as a schoolboy.

Ybarnegaray’s strict amateur principles did not apply to pelota, where many of the top players were paid. The issue was different for him when it came to rugby and particularly rugby league, however. In late August 1940, just a week after Borotra’s committee on professionalism had reported back, Ybarnegaray announced to news reporters: “The fate of rugby league is clear. Its life is over and it will be quite simply deleted from French sport….No more rugby league!”

Despite statements like that, the FFR13 remained optimistic. Marcel Laborde, chairman of the Ligue, stated that he was unworried, as most rugby league players in France were amateurs anyway. He felt that amateur rugby league competitions could continue. As it turned out, he was wrong. 

Consultations continued about the state of sport in France, and many rugby union personalities now had the ear of key figures in the Vichy government, such as Borotra. Dr Paul Voivenel, the head of the French Rugby Union, was one of those personalities. He believed that rugby league was simply a variant of union and had no right to exist in its own right. If rugby league ceased to exist then it was clear who would benefit – rugby union.

Voivenel presented his own report into rugby to Borotra on the same day of an official announcement banning all professional sport in France was banned. After Borotra had summoned Laborde to his office in October, rugby league players in France were to receive a huge shock. Whatever happened at the meeting between Laborde and Borotra, it looks as though Laborde was presented with a fait accompli – rugby league was now to be reunited with rugby union and effectively banished from existence. 

Only schoolboys and students would be permitted to play league, and then only as a ‘preparation’ for playing rugby union later in their lives. Despite protests and embassies from rugby league personalities to the government, the 13-a-side code was doomed. The ban on rugby league would be confirmed by government decree, a year later, in December 1941. 

The decree is quite astonishing for a number of reasons. Article 1 is a blanket ban: “The aforesaid ‘Ligue Francaise de Rugby a XIII’, Headquarters in Paris at 24, rue Drouot, is banned, its permit having been refused.” Or, essentially, the end of rugby league as everyone knows it. 

The second Article went further, effectively seeking not just to ban rugby league but to raze the ground where it had once stood: “The assets of the banned organisation, by virtue of the preceding article, are transferred in their entirety to the National Sports Committee.”

Shockingly, Article 2 meant that all grounds and equipment were confiscated from rugby league and handed over to rugby union. The value of these assets has been estimated as two million 1940 French francs – an astronomical act that amounted to little more than legalized theft.

Could such sporting vandalism be attributed to the fascist regime Vichy France was existing under? Non. Author and journalist Mike Rylance is the foremost expert on French rugby league in the English-speaking world, explains: “The Vichy government was the only government of a country occupied by Germany that had some level of sovereignty left, in the sense that although they didn’t have the right to make decisions about certain areas of policy, sport was one area where they did have almost complete control. It was overseen by the Nazis, but basically the French could do what they wanted and what they saw fit.” 

Rugby union’s champions seized their opportunity, crushing league with an almighty blow from which it would never recover.

There were undoubtedly sporting reasons for this decision, but the fact that rugby league – and its left-leaning politics – were caught in a firestorm of anti-left thinking is undeniable. The Vichy government represented a strain of French politics that craved revenge on all the things about France between the two World Wars that they disliked. Rugby league, with its strong associations with the progressive wing of French politics, was one of those things.

Collins explains: “For the Vichy government, it [rugby league] seemed to represent the way in which French society in the 1930s had rebelled against the traditions of France, and it had undermined French culture. It was an attack from the political cultural aspect as well as from the sporting aspect.”

The bitterness between the codes was visceral. As Henri Garcia stated: “One thing is certain. The war between the rugbys ended with a murder. There are still hands reeking with blood.”

Losses left to history

France deflated finances loss

Rugby league in France was never compensated for its loss during the Occupation. None of the assets were ever returned to it, and it continued to suffer from bigotry even after the War ended and France had been liberated. 

“After the Liberation, when the French Rugby League reconstituted itself and went to the French Ministry of Sport in Paris to discuss the legalisation of rugby league and the restoration of its assets, they found that they the person who was in charge of sport was actually a rugby union official who had been in the Vichy government,” says Tony Collins.

The feelings such harshness created run deep. Paul McDermott, an ex-rugby league professional who played for Sheffield Eagles, Wakefield Trinity and York City Knights during his career, also spent time in France plying his trade with Albi. He admits that the depth of feeling in France surprised him when he played there in the 1983/84 season.

 “They were so anti-rugby union because of what had happened with Vichy France,” he said.

“They said that they took all the money and bankrupted all the clubs, and they said they were told that if they carried on playing rugby league they would have the authorities arrest you.” 

The depth of feeling runs deep. McDermott continues: “Whereas in England we have a dislike for rugby union for the authorities that run that game and tried to eliminate our game in England, but not for the game itself or for the players, [in France] they loathed it. It was in their blood. They absolutely despised the game.”

It was not just a lack of compensation that led to such long resentments; it was the continued efforts to stifle league at a time when it was craving growth. One particular area where the warfare continued was in the player base, as McDermott elaborates: “The rugby union authorities in France would bombard rugby league players, offering them jobs which paid three or four times what they were getting offered for their own jobs to go and play rugby union, and giving them money to go and play rugby union as well. But they weren’t playing for the rugby union team – it was just to stop them playing rugby league.” 

Many of the players who were poached by union were quite prominent too, such as Jo Maso, who went on to win 25 rugby union caps for France as a fly half in the 1960s and 70s, began his career as a rugby league professional with XIII Catalan. The son of former French rugby league international Jep Maso, he is now the manager of the French national rugby union team. 

For French rugby league, it would not be inaccurate to say that the Occupation never ended. The sport continued to be oppressed, essentially by the same people who had banned it during World War Two.

Aftermath: Bitterness with Only Brief Moments of Glory

There were some glorious moments for French rugby league after the War, events that hint at the kind of success the game could have enjoyed there if it hadn’t been subjected to the ban. In the 1950s, the France national side toured Australia and beat the hosts. Under the leadership on the field of inestimable fullback Puig Aubert, the French played an entertaining and winning style of rugby league that delighted all who saw it. 

But those moments of glory faded with the oppression that the game endured in France. France would beat Great Britain in 1984, but have never repeated the feat since. Indeed, the annual fixture against England has now been abandoned, simply because the French do not provide a stern enough test for the English anymore. 

While there are a number of reasons for league’s failure to thrive, perhaps the most persuasive argument is that the tendrils of the decisions made during the Vichy have had long aftershocks- with the banning of the sport in schools a particular area of concern. With the 13-man code never accepted into the education system until relatively recently, it was left to individual clubs to coach and train youngsters. Rugby union, in contrast, could be played in school and youngsters could progress to clubs after that. 

Tony Collins elaborates: “In sporting terms, although they were legalised, they couldn’t call themselves rugby, they had to call themselves ‘jeu a treize’ (game of 13). The game wasn’t allowed to be played in schools, and they could have no more than 200 semi-professional players.”

That made it hard for rugby league to produce new generations of quality French players. Puig Aubert’s feat of captaining a French side that went to Australia and won two Test series in the 1950s has never been repeated, or ever looked like being repeated. The stifling of such talent is the true tragedy of what happened in 1940/41. 

French rugby players play a style of game that is vastly more suited to league’s wider spaces and spontaneous creativity than it is to union’s set-piece structure. That the French have never become the international force that they once were is French rugby union’s vindictive revenge on the uppity rival that came close to eclipsing them. 

Conclusion: Rugby’s Rebel Code Still Playing Catch-Up

Rugby league future pitch

As things stand, rugby league is still very much a niche sport in France. The glory days of Puig Aubert and his compadres seem a very distant memory, while Jean Galia’s feats are even further back in the distance. 

“Where would rugby union on this side of the Channel be without the Second World War?” French journalist Henri Garcia asked rhetorically in 1961 in his book Champagne Rugby. It seems a pertinent point to make even now. 

At the time, Garcia answered his own question in pretty damning terms. “It may seem paradoxical, but first the war, then the Occupation, saved the FFR,” he wrote. Whether many current rugby union fans, wherever they are in the world, appreciate that fact is unlikely. As is the case with so much in the modern world, past atrocities fall by the wayside, and an established worldview – where union is dominant and league is minor – becomes part of the shared consciousness of the sport’s fans.

This new, shaped reality is, however, unlikely to be an accident. Phil Caplan, the editor of Forty20 magazine and one of the UK’s foremost rugby league journalists believes that there are parallels with how other aspects of sporting history are currently being evaluated. “I suspect that it’s a period of history that part of those involved in it have wanted to keep secret, out of shame, for as long as possible.” 

In the end, what sticks in the craw of Treizistes, both in France and across the world, is that rugby union continually celebrates its ‘amateur’ past as something noble and distinctive. As can be seen by the events that occurred in France during World War Two, rugby union’s past has incidents in it that are a long way from being noble. Its conception of ‘amateur’ has also been somewhat elastic, to say the least, over the years, with it often changing depending on who was asking the question. 

While other areas of life saw the injustices of World War Two dealt with, there has been a lingering feeling in France that the injustice perpetrated on the 13-a-side code by its rival has never been properly addressed. Indeed, in many ways, it feels as though the egregious injustice of the Vichy ban has continued in the decades since World War Two. 

But one thing that a sport like rugby league teaches is resilience.  The game in France still exists. Although it faces problems, it is still there – something that is true of rugby league wherever it is played. While it continues to face issues with developing a wider presence, there is still life – and where there is life, there is hope.

While that might seem something of a Pyrrhic victory, it is a victory nonetheless. Rugby league continues to face seemingly existential threats to its existence every few years, but it still exists. Battered, often bruised, and still suffering from the regional and class prejudice that almost resulted in its demise, but stubbornly persisting all the same.

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