France’s lost opportunity

The rugby league landscape in France would have a vastly different appearance if the code had openly turned professional after the successful 1951 tour of Australia and New Zealand.

The 1951 side, led by Robert Caillou from Toulouse, received a heroes welcome at Marseille, with thousands at the docks to greet the tourists, who were then given a ticker tape parade in open air cars, with an estimated crowd of 50,000 lining the streets.

It was time for the 13 man code to capitalise, and get revenge on rugby union, after the Nazi backed Vichy Government, at the behest of union authorities, had banned  league during World War II and seized all the code’s assets.

That the code was able to get up and running was remarkable in itself.

But the fact, just six years after the War, the French could win the Test series 2-1 in Australia, is astounding.

The French drew crowds of 60,160 and 67,009 in Sydney and 35,000 for the Test in Brisbane (at the Gabba), with goal kicking fullback, Puig Aubert from Carcassonne, the fans’ favorite.

It was the recommendation of then French president, Paul Barriere, that league go openly professional, to cement its place in the sporting landscape, and to ensure the big clubs, in cities like Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Perpignan, Roanne and the capital, Paris, prospered.

At that time rugby union was ‘amateur’, although it was widely known that under the table payments were widespread, particularly in France. And if money didn’t directly change hands, prominent French Government officials and businessmen were still very much pro-rugby union, so players from the 15 man code were always well looked after when it came to jobs or business opportunities.

Nevertheless, league continued to thrive throughout the 1950s, with the ’55 French side in Australia winning the series, while the 1960 tourists drew the three Test series in Australia.

And league was cashed up enough to sign union players such Jean Barthe and Pierre Lacaze (1960 tourists) and Jean Capdouze – France’s five eighth in the 1967-68 home series win over the Kangaroos, and in the 1968 World Cup final against Australia in Sydney.

Louis Bonnery played for France Colts against the ’67-68 Kangaroos – at Avignon – the last match ever played by Australia’s captain-coach, the ‘Immortal’ Reg Gasnier. Gasnier retired at the end of the tour because of recurring knee problems.

Bonnery, from Limoux, is currently in Australia as expert commentator for the Bein Sports team, headed by Rodolphe Pires from Albi.

It was his first visit to Australia since he was coach of the 1981 tourists, the last French team to play a Test at Brisbane’s Lang Park, now Suncorp Stadium. That was the ‘Immortal’ Wally Lewis’s first Test series, and the first that I covered as a full time sports journalist.

On a visit to Suncorp Staduum this week, Louis told me of that missed opportunity (to go pro) in 1951.

“That was the time to build on the success of the ’51 side,” he said. “But club officials did not look at the big picture. They were content to maintain their own little kingdoms, rather than take a unified approach.”

Now rugby league in France is just a shadow of its once powerful self, with rugby union going from strength to strength in the professional age, and France recently having been granted hosting rights to the 2023 union World Cup.

France had staged two league World Cups – the inaugural tournament in 1954, and again in 1972 – before union staged its first ever tournament – in 1987.

The flag bearers for rugby league in France are the Perpignan based Catalans Dragons, who play in English Super League. Toulouse Olympic play in the English Championship, which has a real international flavor, given the Toronto (Canada) have won promotion from League 1.

Below these sides are the French Elite clubs – the likes of Avignon, Carcassonne, Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Limoux, St Esteve, Albi, Lezignan, St Gaudens, Palau and Pia, with their championship starting on December 3.

As I have written several times – the people who keep the league flame burning in France are the true champions of the code, and deserve more support from rugby league here in Australia, given the way touring French sides played a major role in ensuring league remained the dominant rugby code here in the 1950s and 60s. After that, television coverage of the Sydney and Brisbane premierships was all that was needed for league to keep ahead of union.

It was great to catch up with Louis Bonnery in Brisbane.

He was a fine player in his day – representing France in two Tests in 1969 – a 13-9 win over Great Britain in Toulouse and a 8-2 win over Wales at Salford.  His book – Le Rugby a’ XIII Le Plus Francais Du Monde – is the bible of the game in France.

I met Louis a second time – in 1989 – when I covered the Queensland Residents tour of France, and then again in 1998, when he arranged a number of memorable functions for my rugby league supporters group.

After the Suncorp Stadium inspection this week, we visited the Broncos, where Louis met the club’s general manager of football operations, Scott Czislowski. Scott, originally from Toowoomba, was a member of the 1979 Australian Schoolboys team to France and England.

On Christmas Day, 1979 the schoolboys were in Carcassonne, and it turned out to be a white Christmas.

Thinking the boys might have been homesick, Louis helped organise a special social gathering for the side.

How disappointed he must have been in 1981 when the French national side toured Australia, because, from what I can recall, they were often treated like second class citizens by administrators.

Here in Brisbane, virtually nothing was organised for them, and, without blowing my trumpet, I organised a Bastille Day lunch for the team at the Mansfield Tavern, with the help of publican, George Pippos, a rugby union man.

I didn’t tell Louis (about the union connection). He may have boycotted the lunch!

Louis Bonnery (left), former France rugby league coach, with Steve Ricketts.

Louis Bonnery (left), former France rugby league coach, with Steve Ricketts.

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