In a rugby league of their own

The two rugby league teams line up 13-wide, 20 meters apart like two firing squads taking aim at one another.

One Dragons Catalans player, wearing a white jersey and shorts with yellow accents down the sides, pitches the white ball to his teammate on the left, and the new ball carrier rams forward into four defenders dressed all in black. They wrestle him to the ground but in a few moments he’s up again, back in the game, back in the battle.

Dragons Catalans players prepare for their Saturday match with a scrimmage against one another. The Dragons, the Perpignan rugby league team, are the only club outside of Great Britain to compete in Europe's Super League.

Dragons Catalans players prepare for their Saturday match with a scrimmage on July 17 at Gilbert Brutus Stadium in Perpignan.

“They’re gladiators,” former XIII Catalan player Klaus Perkovic said, “thrown into the arena to smash into each other.”

The Dragons line up every week, the only French team playing a British sport in what is essentially the British Super League.

“We’re the only non-British side,” Dragons vice captain Jerome Guisset said. “So they take our game as an even harder game because they want to get one over on us all the time.”

Being the only French team in the league, the Dragons face unique obstacles. Not only do French- and English-speaking players and coaches face daily communication barriers, but they also are the only ambassadors of the game outside of Great Britain in the Super League.

“You obviously represent France as a country and over here we’re Catalan, which is a very big thing for us as well,” said Guisset, a French-Catalonian born 5 kilometers, about 3 miles, from Perpignan. “It’s a massive honor to be part of that.”

To add to the challenge, the Dragons are the second favored team of the city, behind the more popular rugby union team USA Perpignan.

Soccer and rugby union rank as the No. 1 and 2 sports, respectively, across France. Without a professional soccer team in Perpignan, however, the Dragons struggle to beat out USAP as the top team and favored sport in South France.

“Rugby union supporters can’t watch rugby league games and vice versa,” said Perkovic, who came from Australia 20 years ago to play for the Perpignan club, which would become Dragons Catalans upon entering the Super League in 2006.

“I played both,” he said, “and I’m not narrow minded, but you can’t compare the two games.”

Rugby league, which, in France, became the blue-collar alternative to union in the 1930s, is a blunt sport of 13 players trying to reach the end zone before five tackles and then punting the ball. It is popular in North England and is the No. 1 sport in Australia.

Union, on the other hand, pits 15 against each other without a limit on tackles and requires more strategy.

“It is not as big as rugby union and soccer (in France),” said Dragons Assistant Coach Laurent Frayssinous. “But rugby league is the sport in South France, in Perpignan. There is a nice culture of rugby league.”

In their five years of Super League competition, the Dragons have been at the top and at the bottom of the rankings. This year the team is ranked last in the standings, but will play in the semifinals of the Challenge Cup tournament in August.

The Dragons finished at the bottom of the standings their first two years in the league, but made their name in 2007 reaching the finals of the Challenge Cup, played in Wembley Stadium before 90,000 fans. It was the first time a French team made it that far.

“We got to the final, which was very important to this club because it was only the second year of its history,” Guisset said. “So it was a pretty big event for us.”

The team continued to spread its gospel across Catalonia, playing a game in Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium last year.

Although rugby league’s popularity in France peaked before World War II, the Nazis banned the sport after taking control of the country. After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, the new government lifted the ban but continued to downplay the sport, pushing rugby union for the next 30 years.

“Rugby league is just hanging in there,” said Perkovic, sitting at the back table of Bar du Marche, the small café he has owned in the village Ille Sur Tet, about 20 minutes from Perpignan, since retiring from rugby 14 years ago. “But I’ve been saying that for 20 years.”

With the Dragons’ early success in the Super League, however, and the sport’s momentum gaining speed, there are opportunities for expansion.

“We need to be on TV a lot more,” Andrew Bentley said. “That’s why rugby union is so big here, more promotion.”

Bentley came to Europe from New Zealand with his family when he was 8 years old. His father, a rugby league player, moved to finish his career 17 years ago. Now, Bentley and his younger brother Kane both play for the Dragons.

Brent Sherwin, an Australian who joined the Dragons two months ago, said the team needs to stay the course and the sport will eventually be as popular as union.

“The fans are very supportive. The crowd is supportive and vocal,” he said. “They just need to keep doing what they’re doing. We seem to have more and more supporters each week.”