Magic Weekend 2022: Super League's tale of two cities as Toulouse and Catalans Dragons lead French revoluton
French clubs Toulouse Olympique and Catalans Dragons head to the Betfred Super League Magic Weekend with different aims in sight; watch all six matches from St James' Park in Newcastle live on Sky Sports on Saturday and Sunday
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 07/07/22 6:11am
If there were a player who was to be seen as the face of the French revolution which has occurred in rugby league over the past decade, then Tony Gigot would arguably fit that bill as well as anyone.
The 31-year-old was at the forefront for Catalans Dragons as they completed their historic Challenge Cup triumph in 2018, being named man of the match in the semi-final victory over St Helens and becoming the first French player to win the Lance Todd Trophy as the Dragons beat Warrington Wolves at Wembley.
Now Gigot is part of Toulouse Olympique's efforts to establish themselves as the second French club in the Betfred Super League, joining after they won promotion from the Betfred Championship last year, and nothing makes the France international happier than seeing how the sport is growing in his homeland.
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"This is always something which pushed me," Gigot told Sky Sports on a media call ahead of Toulouse's must-win Magic Weekend clash with Wakefield Trinity. "I had the dream of being a rugby league player and winning a trophy with Catalans, and I made that.
"That's why I want to see something else and to have another Super League team in France is unbelievable.
"But the second step is we want to stay and create a second big club in France, and that's our main goal. We knew it would be very hard, but nothing is impossible and that's what we believe."
Paradoxically though, this year has been simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times for Toulouse. Because while the newcomers have added another French dimension to Super League and claimed the notable scalp of reigning champions St Helens, they find themselves in danger of an immediate return to the second tier.
The departures of key men Mark Kheirallah and Johnathon Ford earlier this year and injuries have given head coach and former Toulouse player Sylvain Houles plenty to wrestle with, and they find themselves four points adrift of Wakefield at the bottom of the table with 10 games to go.
Nevertheless, speak to anyone involved at Toulouse and it is clear their hopes and ambitions remain unbowed at a time when the 13-man code is enjoying a renaissance in France, buoyed further by the news the 2025 Rugby League World Cup will be held there.
Much of that revival has come on the back of what has been growing 127 miles down the A61 in Perpignan, where Catalans made more history last year by winning Super League's League Leaders' Shield and reaching the Grand Final where they were edged out 12-10 by St Helens.
Perhaps most memorable were the incredible scenes of the Dragons' passionate fans at Stade Gilbert Brutus and their Australian half-back Josh Drinkwater is in no doubt there is still more to come.
I had the dream of being a rugby league player and winning a trophy with Catalans, and I made that. That's why I want to see something else and to have another Super League team in France is unbelievable.
Toulouse Olypmique's Tony Gigot
"Rugby league is going massive here," Drinkwater, whose career has taken in spells in rugby league hotbeds of Sydney and Hull too, told Sky Sports on a pre-Magic media call. "We saw that off the back of the little bit of success we had last year, but one thing with this place is they're rugby league mad.
"The fans are so passionate and love the game, and you always get good home support and I think the travelling fans enjoy it when they come to these games as well.
"French rugby league is blossoming at the moment, hopefully Toulouse can stay up as well and going into the World Cup I think it is [growing] here. It's in a great place and hopefully we can build on the momentum from last year."
While Toulouse are battling to stay in the division, the Dragons are again up among the contenders in 2022 and head into Sunday's Magic Weekend clash with Warrington in Newcastle aiming to build on the 20-18 win at home to Saints last Saturday.
That result kept Steve McNamara's side firmly among the four frontrunners and Catalans, currently third and sandwiched by Wigan Warriors and Huddersfield Giants, have their sights firmly set on a top-two finish and the home semi-final which would come with that.
"I think it's an advantage when you get the week off and have a home semi-final, but if you finish third, fourth, fifth or six then you just have to do it another way," Drinkwater said.
"It would be nice to be in that top two, but as we know it's a very close competition and we've all got to play each other again.
"I think it's going to come down to the last couple of rounds, and we've just got to worry about ourselves and prepare as best we can for the games each week."
French rugby league is blossoming at the moment, hopefully Toulouse can stay up as well and going into the World Cup I think it is [growing] here. It's in a great place and hopefully we can build on the momentum from last year.
Catalans Dragons' Josh Drinkwater
Toulouse gave their own survival hopes a big boost with a 28-6 victory over Hull Kingston Rovers last weekend too, although an attendance of 3,441 at Stade Ernest Wallon shows they still have inroads to make in a city where rugby union giants Stade Toulousain remain the big draw.
Gigot knows the only way to ensure league becomes a bigger presence in France's fourth-most populous city is to become an established Super League club by consistently winning games, starting with Saturday's Magic Weekend opener against Wakefield.
"We try, but everywhere is like this - if you win then people come back," Gigot said. "At the minute, we need to find a way of winning games.
"We're playing some beautiful rugby at the minute, but we don't get the result at the end. But the people in Toulouse are proud to represent Toulouse.
"If we can bring all of these people behind us and show them rugby league is a beautiful sport, we can have something big in Toulouse."
Watch both Toulouse and Catalans in action in Newcastle as part of the six Betfred Super League Magic Weekend matches live on Sky Sports across this weekend.