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The Forbidden Game The Untold Story of French Rugby League By Mike Rylance

League Publications pounds 17.95

TO ANYONE labouring under the fond misapprehension that the two codes of rugby now live in peace and harmony around the world, there is a one- word answer: France.

Hatreds burn there as fiercely as ever. To understand why this should be the case, this illuminating and overdue book is essential reading.

Just before the Second World War, rugby league was taking over as the premier code in France. Only introduced in 1934, it had made massive strides, while French rugby union, banned from international competition for thuggery and "shamateurism", was in retreat.

Come the war and the collaborationist Vichy regime, rugby league found itself banned; one side-effect of the conflict was that French rugby union recovered to regain the dominant position it still enjoys today. Mike Rylance does not pretend that the story of how this came about is a simple one. The role of too many people was too equivocal to allow for that.

Treizistes - as league people in France call themselves - have a good idea where the game's hard-earned resources went. But those tracks have been covered and, when Rylance can find no hard evidence, he says so. There were those in the league camp who could be characterised as Quislings, but at least there is one highly plausible villain. He was the shadowy Colonel Pascot, who engineered the death sentence on the other game. Union's role in the suppression of an alternative sport is a shameful story. Thankfully, this well-crafted account has its lighter moments - like the convert who played league disguised in a wig and false beard, only to lose them in a tackle.

That does not dilute the seriousness of the charge, summed up by Rylance thus: "The 15-a-side game's stabilisation during the war years, halting an apparently irreversible decline, was due to the intervention of officers of that puppet government, who gave the older game a crucial second chance while snuffing out the threat posed by league. It is to French rugby union's everlasting shame that it should have been linked so closely to that reviled administration."

The treizistes - linked convincingly by Rylance to the heretic tradition of their environment - survive and remember. "Just as we had been Cathars, we were treizistes, men apart," wrote one. "Cultive la difference."

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