When he was appointed as Super League’s executive-chairman in 2017, it brought Robert Elstone back to being involved with a competition he was a part of from the very start.
Prior to the launch of the competition in 1996, an eager Elstone – then working for the RFL – had seized the chance to go to France to help get a team playing under the Paris Saint-Germain banner off the ground.
He was there at Stade Charlety on March 29 of the same year to see the culmination of all of that hard work too as PSG kicked off rugby league’s summer era with a 30-24 win over Sheffield Eagles in front of a crowd of nearly 18,000.
Speaking to a special edition of the Golden Point podcast marking Super League’s 25th season, Elstone recalled that night in the French capital and how it felt to watch events unfold.
“It was a bit of a surreal moment,” Elstone told Sky Sports. “We didn’t really know what to expect and I think in reality we were pretty nervous.
“It was a challenging situation to be in, we were trying to work with some French counterparts, cobble a team together and put together something in the public eye which was credible and we weren’t really certain we were going to be able to deliver that.
“We started off thinking ‘this is not looking too bad’, but over the first 20 minutes of the game – in a true fashionably late sense – the Parisian audience turned up after kick-off and our smiles grew broader as we saw throngs of people piling into Stade Charlety.
For that opening night, it was memorable, it was spectacular and certainly something Super League can look back on with a lot of affection
“It kind of beat all expectations in the end and it turned out to be a pretty special night.”
Having grown up in West Yorkshire as a rugby league fan and played the sport while studying at the University of Hull, trained chartered accountant Elstone got his first role on the administrative side in 1995 after approaching the RFL, helping to organise that year’s Charity Shield in Dublin.
It was not long before he was heading to Paris though, with – by his own admission – “a bad A-level” in French and RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay’s advice of “You’re in the business of selling dreams” guiding him.
A lifelong friendship was formed with another highly-regarded rugby league administrator, the late Harry Jepson, during their time setting up the club in the French capital and there was much optimism around the new venture.
But despite obtaining a license to use the iconic branding of one of Paris’ premier sporting institutions, the rugby league team were unable to build on a positive start on the pitch and struggled to make an impact in the city’s wider consciousness.
“We paid a license fee to wear a jersey which broadly looked like theirs and use the name, but we really didn’t get much support and that was one of the challenges,” Elstone said.
“We never really galvanised the support of the football club and never did in any meaningful way in terms of the business or public sector communities in Paris.
“But you look back on it and I think a lot of sports struggle in Paris because it’s a unique city. The football club never really prospered until recent times with billions and billions of Euros of investment which have gone on to build a team challenging in the Champions League.
“Paris is a challenging city and I think you would have needed huge budgets to have made any lasting presence – and even then, I’m not sure when you look at how other sports have struggled to establish themselves in that city.”
Another challenge for the nascent club was the vast majority of their French players were based in the sport’s southern heartland, so had to commute north for training and matches along with working their regular day-jobs.
Elstone relocated to France for PSG’s second season in Super League in 1997, by which time the squad had come to be comprised largely of players from Australia and New Zealand.
The demands were made even greater by the fact the players and their families were essentially living out of a hotel in Bougival on the eastern outskirts of Paris, but Elstone remembers how that adversity also served to bring everyone closer together.
We were all in this hotel and we’d have sing-songs in the bar, and there were some amazing musicians and guitars would come out
“You’d got young families uplifted from Australia, and mum, dad and young kids living in one room in a hotel, and it was a really difficult environment,” Elstone said.
“But the resilience shown by players, coaches and families was remarkable. To add to that, there was a lot of uncertainty about its medium to long-term viability, so players were very uncertain about what was around the corner.
“There were some fantastic memories as well as the squad stuck together. We were all in this hotel and we’d have sing-songs in the bar, and there were some amazing musicians and guitars would come out.”
The club’s eventual demise came about at the end of the 1997 season, having finished 11th out of 12 in its two Super League campaigns. However, the competition regained a French presence in 2006 with Catalans Dragons, who have proven far more successful on the pitch and stable off it.
The Perpignan-based Dragons could be joined by ambitious Championship side Toulouse Olympique in the near future and while the Paris project may now be regarded as something of a pipe dream, Elstone is in no doubt that first night is something to celebrate.
“For a period of time, albeit a short one, it had some real momentum,” Elstone said. “That first weekend was terrific, but it became increasingly challenging doing it on a bit of a shoestring in a hugely challenging environment of a major European city.
“But for that opening night, it was memorable, it was spectacular and certainly something Super League can look back on with a lot of affection.”