Trent Robinson: Australian at heart of France’s rugby league renaissance

The changing nature of international rugby league might have centred on the rise of the Pacific nations but, while a French renaissance has not garnered the same levels of newsprint, the game in France is also very much on an upward trajectory.

France will host the 2025 World Cup and this Chanticleers outfit shapes as one of the strongest French sides of the last 50 years.

The man charged with leading that revival is astute Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson, who has taken on the important director of rugby position. Luc Lacoste and the French Rugby League could not have tapped a more qualified person than the three-time NRL premiership winner, who has not only a history with the French game but a deep affection for the country.

“France changed the course of my life,” Robinson says. “I went there and played and then had a bold president who gave me a [head coaching] job at 28 at Toulouse. Then Bernard Guasch gave me a Super League job at 33. It changed the course of my life as far as football goes but I also met my partner there and my kids are half French.”

There is a great deal of excitement about the French squad for this World Cup; it is a young team that has been building since Robinson came on board. The focus has been about creating a platform that can sustain an identity and a style from the national team down.

“Setting up a professional environment has been really important,” Robinson says. “Even a year ago, Catalans and Toulouse were more professional than the French team. Changing the attitudes has been important, ensuring that when you come into the national team you realise this is the pinnacle of French rugby league.

“It’s about putting systems in place that are going to last for the duration. That’s the goal of what we are trying to do. We want to play a certain style and a style that can be continued game on game.

“These guys are incredibly professional. They are as good a group as I’ve been involved with in terms of their application to training, their life around training and how they prepare. Now it’s about getting those top-end decisions in big games nailed.”

The talent in the French team may not have a lot of name-appeal to southern hemisphere audiences but that may soon change according to Robinson, who says French players are not far away from playing at NRL level.

“The first progression is being a top decision-maker in your club team in Super League,” Robinson says. “Then we can see them starting to push for NRL spots.”

Young halves pairing Arthur Mourgue and César Rougé are expected to be the centrepieces of Les Chanticleers for years to come.

“Mourgue is going well and is developing nicely as a decision-maker while César Rougé has just turned 20,” Robinson says. “Those two halves are really key and it is important we spend time with them.”

Robinson is taking a big picture view of his role and what he hopes to achieve between now and the next World Cup to ensure France are at their strongest when given a platform to shine on home turf. That includes empowering younger players and building a program that has them playing more Tests.

“It’s more a medium-to-long term role rather than the short-term role of the coach,” Robinson says. “When Laurent [Frayssinous] got the job as the head coach, they were looking for a director of rugby to assist him in getting it set up. This included working towards the [World Cup] bid and what will be the World Cup in 2025.”

The importance of the tournament returning to France cannot be understated, particularly given the challenges overcome – from the outlawing of the game and the seizing of the its assets during the second world war to the code not being allowed to use the word rugby until 1991 and the violence that has consistently undermined any efforts to grow.

“This is of huge significance to the game in France,” Robinson says. “It’s a platform for recognition and understanding of our sport in the wider community. It needs to be used as a platform for improvement in television coverage, in sponsorship, in growing the game.

“We’ve talked about the [Fifa] World Cup in America and what that did for the teams and the elevation of clubs. It is about the French team, it is about the World Cup but it’s also about developing the game in France and accelerating its growth.”

Finding a wider audience is also critical for growth, as the absence of TV coverage has impacted the game at all levels in France.

“The big thing is that rugby league is recognised but because it doesn’t have a television platform it is known, but not followed,” Robinson says. “So you end up swimming in the same pool where it gets passed down from generation to generation but it doesn’t get expanded through new players or big large new groups of followers because we don’t have that platform.