Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft
Rugby League in Catalonia
[A version of this article was first published in The Girona Resident magazine]
Here’s a quiz question. Apart from football, in what other sport does a Catalan team play with the best that the world has to offer?
If you were to ask this question in Barcelona or Girona, not many people’s answers would include the words ‘rugby league’.
Recently, though, there have been moves to change this situation: a boost has been given to the sport thanks to the rise of the Perpignan-based Catalan Dragons (or Els Dracs, as they’re known here), who reached the final of the Carnegie Challenge Cup at Wembley against St Helen’s last August.
Rugby league normally receives precious little media coverage in Catalonia, but the significance of this cup final match saw it broadcast on TV3, while French satellite channel Canal Plus screened their previous semi-final victory.
The local rugby industry hopes that such publicity will have a positive knock-on effect on local interest in the sport.
A similar ambition was the inspiration behind a recent event staged at the University of Girona’s Palau Sacosta sporting complex.
The day was billed as an opportunity to ‘Come and Discover Rugby XIII’ (as distinct from the more well-known 15-player ‘code’ of rugby union), and primarily designed to give union players some exposure to the league form of the sport, with both its similarities and differences on show.
While there is a history of 13-a-side rugby in Catalonia, it would be stretching the truth to say that it has a strong tradition.
Talking about the history of rugby league in Catalonia, Enric Ballaguer, one of the Girona event organisers said: “It all started in 1934 [sic.], but in 1993 there was a celebrated match between Catalan XIII and the British club side Huddersfield at the Stade Olympic at Montjuic. It was arranged by Llibert Lopez and more than 10,000 spectators came to watch.”
The idea that the sport is growing in popularity is supported by Jean Claude Touxagas, who was invited to the Girona event because of his expertise as President of the Perpignan-based Palau Treize Broncos, who play in the Ligue Languedoc Roussillon.
He believes rugby league’s appeal is huge. “It’s a faster sport than others”, he said. “It’s easier to understand, the players are fitter and the contact is harder.”
But he suggests that rival commercial interests are “afraid of people seeing it on television.”
Despite this, his opinion is that channels such as France’s Sport Plus could begin to regularly show games in the future.
Clearly, there are fans of rugby league that echo these sentiments about its attractiveness as an entertainment.
“I go to matches often,” said Maria Rosa Vilaro, who joined the Girona gathering. “I like the atmosphere, and the Dragons song is ‘Els Segadors,’ our national anthem.”
Another fan of Els Dracs, Marti Crespo, agreed. “For me, it’s the energetic speed of the game,” said Crespo.
“It’s non-stop. I got tired with football and I’ve found something spectacular in the high level of the Super League in which the Catalans play.”
Valu Bentley, a lock forward from Palau Treize who has two brothers playing for the Catalan Dragons, agrees that improvements are happening in the sport.
He told me: “The standard is really progressing. Overseas players boost us and their professionalism helps lift the local guys.”
He admits though that homesickness can be a problem for some and that working visas for Australians and New Zealanders are not as easy to obtain as they are for others recruited from outside Catalonia.
Despite this, there is a definite multicultural aspect to rugby league in Catalonia now.
Players in the Dragons and Palau clubs have family backgrounds from countries as diverse as Romania, Morocco, and south Pacific island nations such as Samoa, as well as Australasia, France and Catalonia.
This general international expansion of the sport has embraced relative newcomers including Russia and Scotland, and last year the Rugby League European Federation hosted the final of the European Cup under-16 tournament in Belgrade.
In this part of the world too, the sport of rugby league now appears to be waking up. Talks have begun to introduce a version of the game into secondary schools in the Girona area.
“The great dream is to one day have an international match here against another national team,” said Enric Ballaguer.
Planners are also devising a competition made up of teams from Girona, Olot and Barcelona, with the possibility of matches being played at RCD Espanyol’s current home in Barcelona.
The sharing of facilities between sports is of course nothing new. There is already collaboration between FC Barcelona and its amateur rugby team.
One of the most intriguing and potentially promising current developments is that the Barça management has been seriously discussing setting up a rugby league team with the ambition of expanding their involvement in a range of sports.
There is said to be disagreement within the club on this issue, but sources say that these differences of opinion will soon be sorted out.
Naturally, the prospect of attracting the financial muscle of Barça to the cause of rugby league has provoked excitement amongst supporters of the game.
“We don’t want to be in competition with other sports,” said Enric Ballaguer. “We don’t want a fight. We just want to provide another option.”