IN Villeneuve-sur-Lot they still talk about the time ‘big Sirro’ came to town.
‘Big Sirro’ is Paul Sironen, the former international rugby league forward who played 247 matches for his beloved Balmain Tigers, 23 Tests for Australia and 14 times for New South Wales.
He played in two losing grand final sides for Balmain, but at the Villeneuve-sur-Lot Leopards he won silverware in the form of Treize Tournoi tournament in 1998. When he returned to Australia, he had a season in the bush with Blayney, and also won a grand final.
‘Sirro’ took Villeneuve by storm.
The town was the first to switch from union to the league code, in 1934, and to have a player of Sironen’s stature play for them was a huge boost for the game, in a region where big neighbors, Agen, grab most of the headlines, because of their rugby union exploits.
Other Australians in the Leopards’ squad included former Wynnum-Manly halfback, Steve Plath (brother of Bronco, John) and former Sydney Wests’ forward, Grant Doorey. The Leopards, captained by Fabian Devecchi, also boasted Samoan hooker, Vincent Wulf.
The Treize Tournoi featured French clubs, Villeneuve, Limoux and St Esteve and English clubs, Featherstone Rovers, Wakefield Trinity and Preston based Lancashire Lynx.
Villeneuve defeated the Lynx (coached by Steve Hampson) 16-10 in the final, played in Toulouse in front of a raucous crowd of 10,283. Hooker Andy Ruane captained Lancashire.
Radio personalities Roy and HG often used to joke: ‘The ‘Frogs’ hate big Sirro’, a reference to the damage Sironen did on the French section of Kangaroo tours in 1986, 1990 and ’94, but more specifically his performance against France in a Test at Parkes in western New South Wales in 1990 when he skittled defenders like nine pins.
But on this occasion, the ‘Frogs’ loved him. HG Nelson, of course, nicknamed Sironen ‘The Buttocks’. ‘Sirro’ has Finnish blood, his dad having grown up on a farm in Finland, before emigrating to Australia in 1958, as a 21-year-old carpenter, after completing national service.
The first time I went to Villeneuve-sur-Lot, it was to cover a match between an Aquitaine regional side, and the touring Queensland Residents in 1989. The next time I was back there was 2007, with my wife, Marie, when we stayed at a house owned by our English friends, Terry and Joyce Holmes, from Leigh. Terry is a league scribe, like myself.
Terry and Joyce were back in England at the time, but the locals, among them Vincent Wulf, looked after us.
Marie and I have visited ‘Vill’ a number of times since, and seen several rugby league matches there.
in 2009 I had a beer in the Bar Le Tortini, which featured a photo of the team in which ‘big Sirro’ played. We also caught up with Julien Rinaldi, a member of that 1998 side, who was entertaining his close mate, British Test forward, Sam Burgess. They had been teammates at Bradford in England. It was a week before Sam was due to leave for Australia to play for South Sydney and I warned him about the ‘rabid’ Sydney media.
FOOTNOTE: John Doyle (Roy) played rugby league for De La Salle Brothers College. He said there were two religions at the college: “Rugby League and Catholicism….in that order. I played in the second row, but it was a game my heart was never in. I was happier to watch rather than get winded.”
Photo 1: Paul Sironen
Photo 2: Steve Ricketts in Bar Le Tortini
Photo 3: Marie Ricketts with Sam Burgess (left) and Julien Rinaldi.