Beware plasters of Paris

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The Independent Online
THE ROOTS of rugby league were the last thing on News Corporation executives' minds when they outraged the sport's traditional communities with the launch of the Super League last autumn. But nothing in the new- fangled edifice that was rapidly put up where the old structures had once stood looks quite as artificial as the team that provides the only excuse for attaching the all-important word "European" to the venture.

For the Super League's credibility - what is left of it after the Australian launch blew up in its face - the success of Paris St Germain is vital. To that end, considerations of the French game's cultural heritage have been thrown as far out of the window as they have in England.

Across the Channel, as on the English side, the sport is largely confined to one region - and you won't find the Seine flowing through it. Super League thought about having a team in Toulouse, in the south-western heartland of French rugby league, as well as Paris, but according to Robert Elstone, a Super League executive who has overseen the French operation, "we felt it should be one step at a time".

Paris, said Elstone, "adds drama and prestige to the competition, and I know the northern clubs are all very excited about the prospect of coming here". Starting with the visit of Sheffield Eagles this Friday in the Super League curtain-raiser. But there remained one problem: how to sell the jeu a treize in the city of the Jeu de Paumes.

The man responsible for that is Francois Guyot, PSG's head of marketing. It is a tough job, but nothing that a spot of generous subsidising can't make easier. "From my point of view, success would be a good attendance at the games, and a good show of sport," he said. In pursuit of both aims, the Super League has been nothing if not expedient.

The 26 members of the PSG squad have been recruited from clubs in the south-west. They are, in effect, the French national squad, such is the Super League's concern to make PSG as competitive as possible in the face of English opposition which is still expected to be far superior.

Under the general managership of an Australian, Tas Baitieri, they have a French coach, Michel Mazare, and a sprinkling of respectable players - Patrick Entat, a scrum-half who has played for Hull and Leeds; Frederic Banquet, a centre who has played for Featherstone Rovers; and their captain, Pierre Chamorin, also a centre.

But if the recent record of the French national team is anything to go by, PSG may find life difficult. In 16 matches against Great Britain in the last 10 years, France have lost 15 and won one. Andre Passamar, veteran rugby league writer on L'Equipe, thinks PSG, though naturally attacking, may have difficulty adapting to the rhythm of English rugby league. Even Elstone concedes that they will struggle to make an impact at the highest level. "But they realise that, and the task is to build things gradually."

Whether the Paris public is prepared to wait while that happens is a different matter. But to begin with, at any rate, the Super League is falling over itself in its attempt to put bums on the 25,000 seats of the PSG stadium, at Charlety in the south-east of the city. Most of the spectators will be there courtesy of Canal Plus, the French satellite television station which is one of PSG's sponsors. Tickets to the Sheffield match are free to its subscribers, a concession which has even been extended to the "real" fans - the 2,000 or so who are expected to travel up from the south-west. SNCF, the French national railway, is offering them reduced fares.

Sheffield Eagles fans, meanwhile, must pay, which seems doubly hard considering what it will cost them to get to Paris in the first place. Tickets cost pounds 10 - no price in francs is quoted - although that goes down to pounds 8 if there are more than 300 takers, and down to pounds 5 if the numbers top 1,500. The figure is likely to be nearer 1,000, with a probable total attendance of between 10,000 and 15,000.

A rugby league match will only be part of what's on offer. An African jazz band will perform before the match; after it spectators can throw themselves into all the fun of French karaoke. It's an essentially American philosophy of selling sport: use these attractions to get people in the ground, and then let the game hook them - if it can.

While the temptation is to view what is happening with a jaundiced eye, the money the Super League will bring to PSG - pounds 4.5m over the next five years - is huge by the standards of French rugby league, which has always been rugby union's poor relation. The peeling walls of Guyot's office tell their own story. But the bigger challenge may be to keep any cracks in the PSG team papered over.

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