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In Part I, in the 1880s, France began playing rugby to strengthen its male youth after the disastrous result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. But Britian trained its youth in team sport, particularly rugby football. Rugby made gains in Paris in the last years of the 19th century, among the top echelons of the elite lycées, and, later into the exclusive Racing Club and Stade Francais.
Much credit for this Parisian emergence is credited to British ex-Pats, and it would be this same group that started the sport in the south-west provinces of Bordeaux and Toulouse. Rugby swept the region, attracting new adherents among the locals, and, Stade Bordelais would win seven French championships between 1899 and 1911.The climax to the domination of these provincial clubs would see Stade Toulousain defeating Racing Club 8-6 in front of 15,000 fans in 1912. A year later, the south-west’s Aviron Bayonnais beat the Parisian SCUF club 31-8 at Stade Colombes in Paris with 20,000 attending.
The proliferation of clubs in the region can be attributed to cultural factors, the acceptance by the working class to take up the game, and the beginning of rugby des village, where each town formed a club and instilled loyalties among its members to do or die on the pitch against nearby rivals. In essence, the great shift from Paris to the southwest represented a rugby movement to the plebian class away from the capital city patricians. It replicated similar reaction in England, when the industrial midlands took up the sport for factory workers, eventually, leading to the great schism and the start of Rugby League.
Today, the popularity of rugby continues in the southwest, dominated by many of the region's professional clubs (Toulouse, Montpellier, Biarritz, Perpignan etc.) in France’s 14 League. These clubs have been the dominant finalists in the Heinekin Cup, the annual European club championship.
(Part III – Les Blues Emerge as an International Rugby Side.)