First time for better or worse

Dave Hadfield reflects on two cities' response to Super League's revolution
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The Independent Online
To be in Paris for the first visit of the team from the other capital city across the channel is to be at the heart of what Super League aspires to be. Paris St Germain versus the London Broncos - this was the sort of event the game was promised when it leapt into the boudoir with Rupert Murdoch 15 months ago.

Even if Paris St Germain, especially after the defeat they suffered at Workington last week, are struggling to keep their heads above water, although buoyed up by a Super League administration desperate to help them avoid relegation; and even if the Broncos as yet have only a tenuous grip on the sporting imagination of the British capital, it is still a long way removed from Featherstone against Keighley.

Bastille weekend, Nelson Mandela, the South African president, in Paris, the Tour de France weaving its way towards the capital and a rugby league match between two clubs trying to plant the code and make it thrive in the alien soil of two previously indifferent cities - no wonder "tale of two cities" metaphors are in demand in both countries. "Tale of two villages" it is not.

Of the two cities, London's representatives have at least performed creditably on the pitch this season. The Broncos' collection of expatriate Australians can finish in the top four if they continue their winning run, which would be a great achievement and surely an equally important step towards truly putting the code on the map in London.

Tony Currie, their coach, putting the whole thing into its geographic context, says: "Coming to Paris is like a home game for us. It's a two- hour trip as opposed to six or seven.".

Geography has worked against Paris. Like London, it has little rugby league activity to call its own and its players, the ones who have not been flown in from Australia or New Zealand, commute from the league heartland in the south every week.

That mileage, and the fact that many of the Paris side were still also playing for their clubs in the French domestic competition, reduced them to an exhausted rabble in mid-season.

But a more realistic workload, plus the decision to superimpose a high- ranking Englishman, John Kear, on to their coaching structure, might yet spare them the embarrassment of instant demotion to the First Division - or save the League the almost equal embarrassment of moving the goalposts in order to retain them in the top flight, and with them Super League's pretensions to wider European status.

Kear says: "I'm here to try and keep them up. There's no secret about that and I think that we can do it. I can't fault their attitude, especially the younger French players. They really want to learn and to do well."

In a qualified sort of way, Paris has already taken them to its heart. Their home at the handsome Charlety Stadium regularly produces some of the better crowds that are spread unevenly through this first season of summer rugby.

If the majority of the spectators have obtained their tickets through various offers, rather than through actually paying for them, that is still a start. "Give them a winning team and this place will really take off," Kear believes.

There are, inevitably, problems. The ground, imposing as it is, costs a fortune to rent. Paris St Germain, a multi-sports concern whose main business is football, no longer seems as interested in its rugby league wing as it was. Some of the better Paris players have already been picked off in time-honoured fashion by the much deeper pockets of French rugby union.

But revolutions, as the history being celebrated this weekend will testify, do not always go smoothly. Nobody wanting a quiet or easy life should attempt to set up or sustain a rugby league club in Paris or London.

It will take time for a Paris St Germain-London Broncos fixture to imprint itself on the collective mind as part of the sporting calendar, but the cities are close enough and have enough links that something can surely be built on the basis of this year's first playing.

As the sprinkling of London fans converged on the Charlety Stadium last night, with a dash of curious representatives from northern rugby league clubs thrown in among them, it seemed an event worth nurturing for the future.