Well having French sides in playing the English Leagues may be a recent Super League phenomenon but teams from France had been visiting Wigan well before the summer era.
The birth of Rugby League in France goes back to the early 1930s. In 1931 the French National Union side were suspended from the Five Nations Championship after being accused of professionalism in the French leagues, at a time when rugby union was strictly amateur, and also acts of violence during internationals had upset the RFU. They didn't return to that tournament until 1947 so the players of that era were left disgruntled by the lack of international rugby. On New Year's Eve 1933 England and Australia played an international in Paris and although it was a one sided 63-13 Aussie victory, the French became hooked on Rugby League and the chance to play International Rugby again. Led by Jean Galia a touring French National side that had never played Rugby League before made a six match tour of England in early 1934.
During that tour the side visited Central Park on March 1st 1934 to play Wigan but lost 30-27. Jack Morley (2), Dicky Twose (2), Gwynne Davies and Billy Howarth scored the tries to defeat them. After that tour the "Fédération Française de Rugby à XIII" (basically the French version of the RFL) was formed, they launched their own league and played their first international against England in Paris but lost 32-21.
French Rugby League grew rapidly and by 1939 they had 155 clubs in the French league. But World War II changed soon saw things change. Germany had invaded France in May 1940 and divided France into occupied France and a pro-Nazi "Vichy France" government which roughly corresponded to the rugby-playing heartlands in the South. The Rugby Union authorities had a close relationship with the "Vichy" government and they worked with them to have Rugby League banned as a "corrupter" of French youth. The Rugby League players were banned from Union competition whilst all the clubs had all their assets stripped such as funds, stadiums and even kit.
After the war the ban on French Rugby League competition was lifted but they were not allowed to use the word "Rugby" (amazingly this wasn't lifted until 1991). The game became known as "Jeu à Treize" (game of thirteen) for obvious reasons. French Rugby League recovered somewhat and being the prime motivators behind the idea of holding rugby league world cup they held the inaugural competition in France in 1954. They even reached the final played in front of a huge 30,368 crowd at Parc Des Princes in Paris but Great Britain beat them 16-12.
The French captain of that era was a flamboyant full back called Puig Aubert. He was nicknamed "Pipette" which was a reference to the fact he was a massive smoker. He was a lazy individual despite his natural talent but his casual attitude was part of his charm. Amazingly he even smoked during games and their is a great story that whilst touring with Carcassonne against Wigan at Central Park in 1947 he kept catching the ball one-handed while holding a cigarette in the other. This despite the match being played during a snow storm! Aubert would also regularly refuse to attempt tackles on opponents but would berate team-mates for their failure to have done so first. And for goal kicks he lay the ball flat and never measure his steps before kicking.
My Grandad also told me a story once that during that post war era a French Side visitied and tried to kick off with one of those mini sized Rugby balls you give to young kids. May well have been Aubert's mob actually but he can't remember. Anyway Wigan's Jackie Cunliffe was having no of it, he picked the ball up and booted it in the terraces.
Anyway, after the 1954 World Cup, and two successful tours around that time to Australia, French Rugby League became overshadowed by Union and the game declined. The French National side though still proved very competitive and during the 60s, 70s and 80s they were regular visitors to Central Park, playing test matches against Great Britain and England. They claimed victory over Great Britain at Wigan in 1962, 1966 and 1967 as well as a 1970 draw with England. They also played World Cup matches against Australia and New Zealand at Central Park in 1960, almost beating the Aussies in a 13-12 loss. The 80s proved a time of real struggle however and an all time low for French Rugby League came in 1988-89 when a World Club Challenge style "European Club Championship" was due to be played between 1988 English champions Widnes and French champions Le Pontet.
The match had been scheduled for March 1989 as the European sector of a World Club Championship but the international board scrapped proposed plans and thus the English v French champions match was scrapped with it. Le Pontet though begged for a clash to go ahead and it was re-scheduled for May 1989 at their home ground even though both the 1989 champions would have been decided. Widnes however had retained the English title so the clash with Le Pontet was due to be the final curtain on that season. However despite begging for the match to be held, just three days before it was due to take place Le Pontet withdrew from the contest in protest at having had two players banned for assaulting the referee of the 1989 French Championship Final they lost. At very short notice new French Champions St Esteve agreed to play Widnes in Arles but French Media and fans boycotted the match resulting in it being played in front of just 350, mainly Widnes, supporters. To add to the farce two coach loads of Widnes fans only arrived after the final whistle and 200 more were left stranded back in England after missing their ferry. For the record Widnes won the match 60-6.
The rebirth of French Rugby League perhaps began with a shock test victory over Great Britain at Headingley in 1990. They hadn't won on British soil in 23 years so the 25-18 victory over a Shaun Edwards captained British side was a huge result. Another pivotal moment was perhaps 1992 when the RFL allowed both the French League and Cup winners to compete in the Regal Trophy. Carcassonne and XIII Catalan went into the draw and far from me to suggest a fix but it was rather convenient that the French and English champions (Wigan) drew each other. The draw actually put Carcassonne at home but a prior agreement meant both French clubs will play their games in England. So Carcassonne visited Central Park on 7th November 1992 but despite then chairman Maurice Lindsay promising a "real contest" it was an easy 52-0 victory for Wigan. In fairness though that was a respectable effort for a side visiting Central Park in that era. Try scorers that day were Frano Botica (2), Sam Panapa (2), Andrew Farrar, Denis Betts, Joe Lydon and Billy McGinty. Botica added 8 goals in front of a 4,306 crowd.
1996 of course saw the launch of the "European Super League", which basically was the English league with a French team added into it. That team was Paris St Germain playing at the Charlety Stadium in the French capital. The team generally struggled and picked up only 7 points during that inaugural Super League season, however that was enough to avoid finishing bottom. The new clubs first visit to Central Park saw Wigan break the club's record league victory in a 76-8 hammering. Rob Smyth and Henry Paul led the way with hatricks with further tries coming from Gary Connolly (2), Simon Haughton (2), Andy Farrell, Mick Cassidy, Kris Radlinski and Craig Murdock. Farrell (4) and Paul (6) shared the 10 goals. That record league win was bettered further later in that season when Wigan beat Workington 78-6 at Central Park - the record still remains today.
The 1997 visit of Paris to Central Park saw them compete much better but it was still a comfortable 58-20 win. Tries that day came from Tony Smith (2), Daryl Cardiss, Andy Farrell, Andy Johnson, Kris Radlinski, Jason Robinson, Paul Koloi and Gael Tallec. Farrell added 11 goals. Despite Paris' two year struggle in Super League they managed to earn a shock victory over Wigan at Charlety Stadium in 1997. 30-28 was the score on a miserable weekend for me that saw me food poisoned so bad I actually vomited whilst up the Eiffel Tower. Even the 1996 visit was tough with Wigan scraping a 24-20 win.
At the end of the 1997 season the Paris experiment was deemed a failure and the club dissolved. Many believed this was because Paris was not in the French Rugby League heartlands and following their demise the French Authorities regrouped around it's core clubs in the south.
Summer Rugby had also seen the demise of the Regal Trophy so the RFL allowed French teams to compete in the Challenge Cup from 2000. Initially the rule of them not being able to host games in France was continued but then dropped in 2002 and on the way to winning the cup that season Wigan played their first Cup game on foreign soil. "Union Treiziste Catalane" (UTC) were a forerunner to the current Catalans Dragons but in 2002 they were part time and Wigan cruised to a 72-6 win at Stade Aime Giral.
May 2004 saw Super League clubs vote to introduce "UTC" to Super League from 2006. It was originally expected that they would be called Perpignan but of course they became known as Catalans Dragons. When Wigan drew UTC in the 2005 Challenge Cup 5th Round at home the tie was seen as a chance for the French to prove they would be a worthy Super League side. They had knocked out then first division Hull KR in the previous round but Wigan were expected to be a big step up in class.
The weather on the night of the match was atrocious. Heavy rain soaked the pitch and Wigan had to contend with the absence of Danny Tickle, Sean O'Loughlin, Gareth Hock, Brian Carney, Danny Orr and Kris Radlinski. But the biggest blow of all was Wayne McDonald being cup tied! (I'm not being sarcastic - honest!) The reshuffling saw David Vaealiki at full back, Chris Melling at centre, Kevin Brown at Stand Off and academy player Dave Allen at loose forward.
For some reason Wigan played in that years blue and white hooped away strip even though it was a home tie. The match saw UTC take the lead in the 12th minute thanks to a penalty from Laurent Frayssinous. In my match report of the game I wrote, "Never in a million years would anyone have predicted they'd take that to half time. But they did and it was down to Wigan just not having a clue in attack." Into the second half and we scored after just three minutes through Chris Melling. "Rout to follow now surely??" I wrote. "But it didn't happen. UTC replied immediately with a try from Gregory Mounis, giving them an 8-4 lead with 30 minutes to go".
"Wigan huffed and puffed chasing the match but kept forcing errors. A shock was on the cards, no doubt about it. Wigan just didn't look like they could get over the line. That was until Stephen Wild scored on 73 minutes, finishing off a great kick from Dennis Moran. Chris Melling beautifully converted to give us a 10-8 lead. Game over. Or so we thought."
UTC immediately equalised with a penalty from Fraysinnous for 10-10. The 5,906 crowd had endured a dire 80 minutes but I seem to recall that I was quite please at that point thinking a replay in sunny France was on the cards. My smile was soon removed when it was pointed out extra time was on the cards. I'd rather have seen us lose than endured another 20 minutes it was so bad a performance. But in the final minute...,,, "UTC knocked on in their own half and Wigan celebrated as if they'd won. They needed to score though. Moran shaped to kick a drop goal but was being blocked. The blocks opened up a gap for him though and he sent Kevin Brown over for a crucial try which Melling converted." Denis Betts said afterwards he was "honestly never worried" about defeat. He was having a laugh. That day proved to be the beginning of a downward spiral which saw the club collapse like a pack of cards to two record defeats and then almost relegation in the next 15 months. Maybe it would have been better to have been embarrassed by UTC because that lucky win only led to a certain defeat at St Helens in the next round.
Ironically whilst that UTC win may have been the beginning of a complete collapse of Wigan Rugby League, the Catalans Dragons first visit to the JJB proved to be the beginning of the road to recovery. Wigan of course had lost to the Dragons in the opening match of the season in Perpignan but no one could of predicted then that when the Dragons came to the JJB on June 18th 2006 that they would be above Wigan in the league. Not only above us in the league but six points clear of us at the foot of the table! The French side were exempt from relegation as well so Wigan had to catch 10th place Wakefield to survive.
Going into that weekend Wakefield were also 6 points clear of us and with two wins to our name all season things looked really bleak. Sky decided they wanted to show the match but with the Football World Cup taking place they decided to show it on a Sunday Night with a 7pm kick off. This meant Wakefield and our other relegation rivals Castleford both played in the afternoon prior to the game and the news was not good. Castleford beat Huddersfield 32-14 at the Jungle and Wakefield nicked a 17-16 win away at Warrington. I remember sitting in the Red Robin with BBC GMR in my ear as Lee Briers missed a last minute penalty goal to win the match.
Those results meant as we kicked off at 7pm - Castleford had a 9 point lead over us and Wakefield 8 points. I've little doubt that both sides probably thought they'd done enough to survive after winning that day. With us having won just 2 games from 16 matches no one was expecting us to win at least 5 of our remaining 12 games to survive and that's without either side picking up another point themselves.
But as we now know we did make the Great Escape and the visit of Catalans was the launch pad. In my report I wrote, "It was not pretty, in truth it was bloody awful, but what a relief to win our first home match since February 24th. That was absolutely painful to watch. Even twelve points up with five minutes to go we couldn't relax because this team knows how to blow a match." Things did look ominous for Wigan when Chris Beattie scored after 52 seconds for the French but tries from Mick Higham and Nathan McAvoy put us 12-6 ahead. Bruno Verges then levelled at 12-12 but one thing Wigan now had was a cool headed leader in Michael Dobson who had recently joined us from the French side. He kicked three penalty goals before Bryan Fletcher scored a massive try to make it 24-12. John Wilson's 78th minute try turned out to be mere consolation. Seems daft to say it now but defeat that day would have signalled certain relegation. So those that like to moan about our current plight of 8th in the league and just 80 minutes from Wembley should think on. Who knows what would have happened to our club had we lost that day.
Catalans actually revisited the JJB six weeks later during the "great escape" but by then Wigan had won 5 out of 6 matches and with Wakefield failing to pick up a single point in that run we climbed above them into 10th. This visit was in stark contest to the nervous tension filled night the first match had been. Confidence was now sky high, highlighted in the final score of 40-4 to Wigan. Mark Calderwood, Bryan Fletcher, Harrison Hansen, Pat Richards, David Vaealiki, Chris Ashton and Mick Higham scored the tries with Michael Dobson (4) and Danny Tickle (2) kicking the goals. Thomas Bosc scored the only try for the French.
The 2007 visit of Catalans to the JJB in June was a Challenge Cup Semi Final dress rehearsal. The draw had pitted them together but although Catalans would win the semi, this league clash was an easy 30-0 Warriors win. You'll remember this match for Justin Murphy's unbelievable collision which saw him full somersault over advertising boards and crash land on the steps at the bottom of the North Stand. Unbelievable because he had no broken bones or blood and managed to play on. It was a miracle he wasn't seriously hurt. The match was pretty boring with tries from Phil Bailey, Trent Barrett, Chris Ashton, Pat Richards and Mark Calderwood securing the victory. Pat added 5 goals.
Last year Wigan managed to throw away an 8 point lead with four minutes to go against Catalans. We were defending the league's only unbeaten home record and tries from Pat Richards (2), Eamon O'Carroll and George Carmont had only been responded to by efforts from Clint Greenshields and Justin Murphy - so with a 24-16 lead late in the match everything looked good and our record safe. But the game turned when Ashley Klein ruled Pat Richards bundled into touch when most of us Wigan fans believed a tackle had been completed. This allowed Catalans great field position and eventually ex Warrior Jerome Guisset made it an tense finish by crashing over in the 76th minute, with Bosc adding his fifth goal. 24-22 Wigan with 3 minutes left. Wigan were desperately hanging on as the clock was removed from the scoreboard to signify injury time. The French were battering the Wigan line and on a last tackle, the impressive Bosc hoisted a kick to the corner and with Calderwood appearing to be tackled in the air, their was no one out wide to stop Dane Carlaw from scoring and nicking two points off Wigan. The conversion was missed but it didn't matter - time was up.
All Time Head to Head in League Matches
|Played 8||Wigan 4 Wins||Catalans 3 Wins||1 Draw|
Record in League Matches at Wigan
|Played 4||Wigan 3 Wins||Catalans 1 Win||0 Draws|
Record in Super League Matches since 2006 incl Play Offs
|Played 9||Wigan 5 Wins||Catalans 3 Wins||1 Draw|
Record in Super League Matches at Wigan since 2006
|Played 4||Wigan 3 Wins||Catalans 1 Win||0 Draws|
11 years ago: Wigan beat St Helens at Central Park on their way to sealing the league championship. Tries from Mark Bell, Andy Farrell, Paul Johnson, Terry O'Connor and Simon Haughton (2) plus 7 goals from Farrell saw us claim an easy 38-12 win.
7 years ago: Wigan met Halifax at the JJB on a Thursday Night with the match being brought forward to allow for Great Britain to travel to Australia for a mid season test match. Tries from Jamie Ainscough, Gary Connolly, Julian O'Neill, Adrian Lam and Terry O'Connor ensured a 28-10 victory.
1 year ago: Wigan clinched an impressive victory over Leeds. 100% set completion had helped Wigan build a 17-0 half time lead with tries from Cameron Phelps (2) and Liam Colbon but Leeds hit back second half. Darrell Goulding added to Wigan's tally but in the final minute and whilst trailing by just 1 point, Leeds received a controversial penalty from Ashley Klein which gave them a chance to win the match. Rob Burrow missed however so Wigan hung on to a 23-22 win.