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(As the Women's Rugby World Cup will start August 1 in France, Rugby Today looks back at the history and growth of the sport in that country.)
An Englishman, John Wilson, wrote these memorable words in 1829, "The sun never sets on the British Empire." But the sun had set over the hundred of years of claimed English possessions in France when the Brits left the port of Calais in 1558. No local English around meant no rugby playing in France, while the game spread throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Part of the reason for the initial French negativity can be traced to the historic Anglophobia as the 19th-century began with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Six decades later the French would find a new European nation to battle, losing to the unified German states in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The humiliation at Sedan when Napoleon III surrendered himself and 100,000 soldiers, eventually led the French to assess their military and societal systems. One consensus arose: a regeneration of the young male elite to toughen up, first with gymnastics, and later, with rugby.
In the 1880s, a period of glowing Anlglomania, the upper class Paris lycees opted to learn and play English game. To supervise the expansion of all sports, Baron Coubertin, founder of the Olympic Games, organized the Union des Sociétés Françaises des Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). At the same time, the first club in Paris was formed with the very chic English name Racing Club. The rugby development was aided by British ex-Pats living in the city. By 1892, the French staged a national championship when Racing played Stade Francais in the Bois de Boulogne in front of 2,000 spectators, including de Coubertin. He had been a vocal proponent of the sport since visiting Rugby School years earlier.
The USFSA's Latin motto expressed the newly found French sentiment - Ludus pro patria or "The game for the Fatherland." Within the next two decades, rugby would generate enthusiasts in Paris, but even though the sport was confined to the upper class lycees, the next phase in the growth of French rugby would occur in the rural countryside of the wild southwest.
(Part II - Expansion in the Provences)