Paris the unlikely setting for Super League’s first match

March 29 marks 24 years to the day since Super League began, in the most unlikely of settings of Paris.

Here the PA news agency looks back at that momentous day in 1996 when Paris St Germain hosted Sheffield Eagles and assesses why the Paris experiment ultimately ended in failure.

Rugby League – Wigan Warriors Press Conference – JJB Stadium
Maurice Lindsay was delighted with the opening night of Super League (Malcolm Couzens/PA)

Led by club president and former rugby union player and coach, Jacques Fouroux, PSG were awarded a place in the newly-formed summer rugby league competition and given the chance to kick off Super League.

Amid much scepticism, a team coached by Frenchman Michel Mazare made a dream start with a thrilling 30-24 victory over Sheffield Eagles in the inaugural match in front of a crowd of 17,873 at the Stade Sebastien Charlety, the biggest for a rugby league game in France for 38 years.

“Some reporters came for a funeral and had to write about a party,” said Rugby Football League chief executive Maurice Lindsay, whose idea it was to start up an exciting new league comprising teams from cities across the continent with the aid of £87million from Rupert Mudoch.

Fouroux said: “Ninety-eight percent of the crowd were new to the game but they understood it right away. They saw tries, lots of commitment and lots of movement. They saw beauty. They attended a great party.”

After such an encouraging start, however, reality soon set in and PSG’s opening victory against Gary Hetherington’s Sheffield was just one of three wins by the Paris team throughout the 1996 season.

The team came next to last, finishing just two points in front of relegated Workington, despite being loaned the services of rising coach John Kear and also ended up in 11th position in their second season and their struggles were reflected in attendances, which plummeted dramatically.

Swansea City v Everton – Premier League – Liberty Stadium
Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone was involved with Paris St Germain (Nick Potts/PA)

The crowd for the visit of Salford in July 1997 was officially recorded at 500 and matches were switched towards the end of the season to Narbonne and Bayonne as the club began to hemorrhage money.

Lindsay, desperate for the experiment to succeed, dispatched his number two Robert Elstone (now executive chairman of Super League) and leading administrator Harry Jepson to Paris to bolster a club now without Fouroux but they were fighting against the tide.

Detached from the rugby league heartland in the south of the country, the Paris project was probably doomed from the start and the end came in sight when revelations emerged the players, by then mostly Australians, were in the country on tourist visas.

That scandal finally broke the club and it was announced in November 1997 that Huddersfield would replace Paris in Super League for 1998.

Barrow v Sheffield Eagles – Betfred Championship Summer Bash – Bloomfield Road
Mark Aston, now head coach of Sheffield Eagles, played in the inaugural Super League match in Paris (Richard Sellers/PA)

It was fleetingly glorious and, despite its abject failure, the dream of a French presence in Super League continued to flicker for another seven years until XIII Catalan merged with local rivals St Esteve to form Catalans Dragons, who were admitted in time for the start of the 2006 season.

Teams from that day in March 1996 were:

Paris St Germain: Laurent Lucchese; Mikhail Piskunov, Frederic Banquet, Pierre Chamorin, Arnaud Cervello; Todd Brown, Patrick Entat; Gregory Kacala, Patrick Torreilles, Jason Sands, Darren Adams, Didier Cabestany, Jacques Pech. Subs: Ian Turner, Vea Bloomfield, Regis Pastre-Courtine, Fabien Devecchi.

Sheffield Eagles: Waisale Sovatabua; Joe Dakuitoga, Lynton Stott, Jean-Marc Garcia, Matt Crowther; Ryan Sheridan, Dean Lawford; Paul Broadbent, Johnny Lawless, Danny McAllister, Andy Hay, Paul Carr, Mick Cook. Subs: Keith Senior, Mark Aston, Anthony Farrell, Dale Laughton.

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