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Rugby league this week suffered the depressing news of the suspension of star coach Ian Millward by his club St Helens for disciplinary reasons. A more cheering and significant development this weekend, however, is the appearance of three French clubs in the Challenge Cup's final 16.

Together with impressive performances by France's national team against Australia - when they trailed by only four points with 10 minutes to go - and New Zealand last autumn, it signals an overdue upturn for French league. This is a welcome boost for a sport that has a narrow international base and badly needs its traditional fourth force revitalised.

The cup draw has been unkind, sending UTC Perpignan to Wigan and Pia to Leeds on Friday night, although Toulouse will hope to beat Doncaster at home on Sunday.

But Robert Fassolette, leader of league pressure group Treize Actif, believes the results are less important than how they are achieved. "What is important is that our teams should play in a way that wins respect - which we have not always had in recent years - for French rugby league."

Credibility, he says, is vital. "Without that respect, it is very hard to make any impact on the media here."

Those international performances have led to improved television coverage this season and Fassolette suggests that Australian coach Mick Aldous's influence goes beyond that. "Talking to the players, they say that he has treated them very well and that this has given them greater confidence and they take this confidence back to their club teams."

Developments in rugby union have also been helpful. "People see [ex-league player] Jason Robinson playing for England and the influence of rugby league on the national rugby union team through the defence coach Dave Ellis, a league coach who won championships with Villeneuve, and they realise that rugby league is not a bad game."

There is a deep irony in union helping league. The battle between the codes has been bitter in France, its cause célèbre being league's suppression in 1941 by the Nazi-backed Vichy regime.

And a government inquiry into suppression secured by Treize Actif fell victim to France's rightward swing in 2002. "The report was ready, but there was no time before the change of government, and nothing has been seen since," says Fassolette.

Suppression had a lasting impact. Union clubs appropriated league property, the name "rugby" was lost, and a school sports curriculum, introduced in 1941 and still in operation today, excluded league and focused entirely on five sports: union, football, handball, volleyball and basketball.

Yet, relaunched as Jeu à Treize, French league enjoyed a postwar golden age. "There was a reaction against everything to do with Vichy, and the leading figures of the pre-war game had mostly survived and worked with great vigour to re-establish the game," says Fassolette.

Led by legendary full-back Puig Aubert, France won in Australia in 1951 then initiated, staged and was runner-up in the first World Cup in 1954.

Particular interest this weekend focuses on UTC, who will enter Britain's Super League next season as Catalan Dragons, a name agreed this week.

Fassolette says: "Initially I thought Toulouse would be a better choice to represent France because of its size and economic possibilities, but now I think differently. Rugby league is built into local culture in Perpignan and the club is determined to build a cross-border Catalan identity. It will play some matches at Figueras [in Spain], which has a 25,000 capacity stadium."

Already close to Super League standard, UTC have beaten Hull Kingston Rovers, a strong Division One club, in consecutive Challenge Cups. They will combine French talent with high-class imports such as New Zealand scrum-half Stacey Jones.

"The game is secure in its strongholds, but this is our best chance since the failure of the Paris St Germain club in the 1990s - perhaps our last chance - to become a national force again," says Fassolette.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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