French rugby in the South of France – more than just a sport?
Rugby union is one of the most popular sports in France, and the French national team, famous for their ‘French flair’, is one of the best in Europe. But in the South of France, rugby is more than just sport, it’s a religion! Don’t be caught out – here are the ‘must-knows’.
In the North of France, soccer (or football) is the main sport, but in the South, it is rugby union that is considered the ‘beautiful game’. And for many towns, rugby is a significant part of their culture, history and identity.
French rugby: introduced by the British & adopted by the ‘south’
British expats introduced rugby into the North of France in the early 1870s before it rapidly spread and developed a dedicated following.
The combined number of rugby followers in other popular rugby nations including Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Ireland and Scotland, is less than France’s total following, with over 65 million supporters.
Rugby was initially played in the elite lycées but the spread of clubs was due to an important cultural shift: the acceptance by the working class to play the game. This was the beginning of ‘le rugby des villages’ in which each town formed a club with loyal members to ‘combat’ nearby rival towns.
Understanding the rugby competitions
There are two important rugby competitions in France: Top 14 and Pro D2.
- Top 14 is the top national league competition in France, and as the name suggests, there are 14 teams. The first competition was held in 1892 and the regular season consists of 26 games. Top 14 teams also compete in the European club competitions: the European Rugby Champions Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup.
- Pro D2 is the division directly below Top 14 and was introduced in 2000; the competition consists of 30 rounds. There is a relegation system between Top 14 and Pro D2 meaning at the end of each season the two top teams from Pro D2 are promoted to Top 14, and the two bottom teams from Top 14 are demoted.
Follow French rugby in the media
Rugby in France is well covered by the French media.
There is a newspaper, the ‘Midi Olympic’, dedicated entirely to rugby, and games are televised by Canal+, France 3 and Eurosport.
There are also mobile applications like ‘Rugbyrama’ which can be used by supporters to track all French rugby teams, players and competitions. Fans can also use it to follow games with live updates and commentary if they can’t physically attend a match.
More than just a sport – believe it
Rugby in the South of France is not just followed, it is lived and breathed. Men, women and children alike embrace the sport equally for its ferocity, beauty and humility.
At one moment they might be singing a hymn that perfectly reflects the beautiful flow of the players’ movements, and moments later they’re watching giant men locked in ferocious battle like modern-day gladiators. And no one ever forgets the ‘3rd half’, where players and fans of both sides mingle and share stories, and perhaps show off their battle wounds.
When a team is doing well, the whole town celebrates with them, and when they aren’t doing well, the town suffers too.
The fans are passionate and many will travel long distances to support their team. Most teams even have a band that attend all games (home and away) without fail.
Is rugby religion? In France, perhaps yes
According to Mark Whittaker in the Guardian: “Rugby, the cliche goes, is a religion in the deep south-west of France; a passion that has expressed and fuelled village and small-town rivalries in the region for a century.”
The love for this sport is so strong that in the pine forest of Les Landes, on the banks of the river Ardour is a chapel dedicated to Rugby.
Inside the ‘Notre Dame du Rugby’ are hundreds of framed rugby shirts and behind the altar is a cabinet containing photos and jerseys of rugby players – a shrine for young local men who died playing rugby or because of a rugby injury.
This translated prayer, framed next to the altar in the chapel, demonstrates the importance of rugby in the South of France:
“Virgin Mary, who taught your child Jesus to play at your knee. Keep a maternal watch over the game of these grown-up children. Be with us also in the great scrum of existence, so that we may come out winners in the great game of life, giving an example – as on the field – of courage, zest and team spirit. In a word of an ideal in your name. Amen.”
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1. ‘Augustin Figuerola’ by Fanny Schertzer, via Wikimedia Commons
2. ‘Delon Armitage’ by Fanny Schertzer, via Wikimedia Commons
3. ‘Line-out’ by Pierre Selim, via Wikimedia Commons
4. ‘Mélée Stade ASM Clermont’ by Palmipode, via Wikimedia Commons
5. ‘Chapelle Notre Dame du Rugby’ by Annie Chaumeny, via Wikimedia Commons