Rugby League’s World Cup has a very intimate relationship with the birth of Rugby League in France. Without France, we may have never had a World Cup at all. And it is because of France that a World Cup may have happened nearly two decades earlier than it did.
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s saw Rugby Union in France riddled with sickening violence on field, which saw three players killed in the 1929 and the death of teenage winger Michel Pradie the following year.
The violence coupled with secret payments to amateur Union players led to the French Union being described as ‘shamateurism’. In 1931 the games governing body omitted France from the 5 Nations Championship and all future international matches until they cleaned up their act. They were readmitted in 1939, but due to the war, did not play an official international fixture until 1947.
This decision meant France had no official countries to play International fixtures against; games which were the biggest drawcards in every country. The only country willing to play France was Germany, a very poor quality side that was regularly beaten.
On New Year’s Eve, 1933 Australian Rugby League tour manager Harry Sunderland, organised a game between his touring Kangaroo’s and the English team to be played in Paris. The French public starved of real international Rugby for a few years, flocked to the game in atrocious conditions. Australia, led by the brilliant Dave Brown, ran out convincing winners 63-13 in front of 10,000 cheering French in the snow. The very next day, Frenchman Jean Galia resigned from the French Rugby Union and set about starting the game of Rugby League in France. On April 6, 1934 they were officially a Rugby League nation.
Just 9 months later, the Rugby League Council debated the merits of a World Championship tournament proposed by the French officials, which would include teams from England, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand. The council though rejected the concept citing “the impossibility of fielding truly Australian and New Zealand teams.”
As World War II drew nearer, France’s national side became stronger and more competitive. In 1938/39, they won the European Championship for the first time, defeating England 12-9 and Wales 16-10.
The War though saw the game in France suffer horrendously at the hands of the pro-Nazi, collaborative Vichy Government, who set out to ‘delete’ Rugby League, and for a brief period, succeeding.
Paul Barriere, a highly decorated French Resistance fighter, was elected vice-president of the French Rugby League on September 16, 1944, working as the understudy to Marcel Laborde. On July 2, 1947, Laborde handed the reigns over to the much younger and energetic Barriere, giving him the onerous task of reviving the game in France.
Four months later, Barriere proposed to the Rugby League Council his idea for a “World Championship of Rugby Leagues” to be played between Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand. Barriere estimated that the tournament would generate £24,000 which would be more than enough to cover travel expenses for all teams to travel to France. The concept was supported by the Council’s secretary Bill Fallowfield. The board members decided to discuss the concept with their respective national boards before reconvening in the New Year to discuss the matter further.
Barriere’s biggest hurdle in the early stages of his talks regarding the World Cup was that he represented a nation who themselves were not represented on the Rugby League Council. Thus, he put forward another proposal, to form a new governing body for the game that would include a member from all Test playing nations. The Council agreed and on January 25, 1948 in Bordeaux, the International Board of Rugby League was formed. Barriere continued to push for the World Championship but was constantly met with concerns about costs and conflicts with international tours, while also trying to figure out the logistics of such a competition that neither Rugby Union nor League had ever staged before.
After years of providing solutions to problems and designing a format for the competition, Barriere informed the games governing body in early November of 1952, that the French Rugby League would provide £25,000 towards expenses for the tournament. He proposed for the tournament to last 15 days and to be held in France around April and May of 1954. The British delegates immediately accepted the proposal, however the Australian and New Zealand officials were apprehensive and agreed to defer their decisions until after they’d spoken with their respective national bodies.
Ten weeks went by without any word on the progress of talks between the Australian and New Zealand boards, so Barriere sweetened the deal moreso by increasing France’s guarantee from £25,000 to £36,000 as well as proposing to put all the New Zealand and Australian players on the one plane and fly them to France, at the French League’s expense.
French Rugby League secretary Antoine Blan also proposed that a team from the United States would be invited to field a team in the inaugural World Cup, as a means of taking the game to new shores.
Two days later, Australian Rugby League secretary Harold Matthews revealed “France’s idea was a very good one” but the major stalling point was the proposed dates for the competition. Barriere had suggested May 16 to May 31, however the English team would be touring Australia and New Zealand around that time and thus they requested that the tournament be held in October 1954 instead.
The following week, Barriere unveiled the mechanics of the competition. Australia, England, New Zealand, France and United States would all play each other once. The top two teams with the best records would play off in a final to determine the World Champion.
Impatience and frustration reared its head on April 19, 1953, when the British Rugby League officials declared the Australian board as inconsiderate for not immediately agreeing to the World Cup concept. They even proposed moving the British tour to Australia and New Zealand to 1955.
Finally, on November 26, 1953, the Australian Rugby League board approved of France’s World Cup concept, after French and British officials agreed to move it to October and November of 1954. The Australians agreed on the provisos that the French Rugby League:
*would pay for return air fares for all players
*would pay £2,000 to all competing teams to cover accommodation and player allowances
*would retain 20% of all gate receipts to cover ground hire and organisational expenses
*would receive the first £5,000 of the remaining profits, while the remaining profits would be shared equally between the other competing nations.
The Australian board believed that if these were agreed to, that the New Zealand board would also accept the World Cup concept. Blan and Barriere agreed to the provisions set down within a few days. Shortly after, the New Zealand board approved of the World Cup concept.
On December 16, 1953, Barriere sent an invitation to the United States, asking them to send a team to play against France to determine if they would be competitive enough to take place in the World Cup. English officials were not happy about having the United States involved in the World Cup as they hadn’t played any international games and thus were not worthy. Bill Fallowfield suggested that Barriere’s programme should not be adopted until the Australian and New Zealand officials had discussed it.
Barriere quite happily suggested that if the United States were not good enough, then he’d be more than happy to send Wales an invitation. On January 9, 1954 France easily accounted for a United States team 31-0 and the decision was made to omit them from the World Cup. Wales however was not approached to replace the United States.
The International Rugby League Board convened in Brisbane on June 27, 1954, where Antoine Blan explained how the competition would be run and that after the final was played, the World Champion team would play against a combined side made up from players from the other competing nations. This idea was met with little interest. Blan later revealed that the organisation of the World Cup could likely cost the French £47,000, not including the World Cup trophy, which was commissioned by Barriere at the cost of 8 million francs and then donated to the International Rugby League Board.
Just a month before the tournament was due to begin, a heavy blow befall England’s side, when a number of prospective representative players refused to be considered for selection as they believed the wages they would receive for competing was not enough. Other English players made themselves unavailable due to domestic reasons, some of whom were to be undertaking naval training.
After 20 years, a World War, a government that deleted Rugby League in a country, high expense, deliberation and most of all, amazing patience, vision and generosity by the French Rugby League, especially Paul Barriere, the inaugural World Cup kicked off on October 30, which saw France defeat New Zealand 22-13 at Paris in front of 13,240 spectators.
England eventually defeated hosts France in the final 16-12. Overall, a total of 138,329 people attended the 7 games, bringing in around £45,000. France’s official outlay was £38,000. This left £7,000 as profit. According to the arrangement made, France was to receive the first £5,000 and the remaining monies would be split equally among the remaining three countries. However the French tax department claimed all of the remaining monies, leaving the other three countries without a bonus; however the French officials did honour their agreement of paying for each team’s airfares and expenses, leaving no country at a loss.
The inaugural World Cup was considered an overwhelming success on and off the field. Australian team manager Jack McMahon rejoiced, saying “It was a terrific gamble by the French, but it has been a great thing for our code.”
And it continues to be.
1954 World Cup Details
Oct 30 – France def Wales 22-13 – Crowd 13,240
Oct 31 – Great Britain def Australia 28-13 – Crowd 10,250
Nov 7 – Australia def New Zealand 34-15 – Crowd 20,000
Nov 7 – France drew with Great Britain 13 all – Crowd 37,471
Nov 11 – France def Australia 15-5 – Crowd 13,000
Nov 11 – Great Britain def New Zealand 26-6 – Crowd 14,000
Nov 13 – Great Britain def France 16-12 – Crowd 30,368
************This article Appeared in Men Of League Magazine***************