Carcassonne had been a highlight of my ‘backpacking days’ in Europe, and now here I was, on assignment for Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper.
I couldn’t believe it.
It was September, 1989, and I had been sent to cover the historic Queensland Residents, four match Rugby League tour of France.
The visit to Carcassonne was a chance for me to repay a ‘debt’.
You see, when I was there in April, 1978, my wife and I had been ‘killed with kindness’ at the city’s famous Bar Le Rugby.
When licensee, Jean Barthe, the only man to captain France in rugby union and league, realised Marie and I were getting by on meagre rations, he insisted on shouting drinks. The regulars, one of them an Englishman working in a nearby vineyard, also dug deep.
But the most famous patron was Puig Aubert, the legendary former French rugby league fullback, who was France’s sports star of the year in 1949. That’s all sports – soccer, union, cycling, the lot.
This was his ‘local’, something I didn’t realise until I stumbled across the bar, while my wife was resting in the back of the Kombi.
The name, Bar Le Rugby attracted me in the first place, and then, when I looked inside, there was a huge photograph from a France v Great Britain rugby league Test, with Barthe in the thick of the action.
When I mentioned to Barthe that I was a rugby league player from Australia – which I was – Brothers in Brisbane, if you don’t mind – I was welcomed with open arms by a man who proved one of the best French players on their 1960 tour of Australia and New Zealand, when they drew the three Test series with Australia. First match was 8-8, we won the second and they won the third.
When I mentioned that my father and grandfather had told me stories about the legendary 1951, ’55 and ’60 French sides in Australia, and in particular the 1951 side, captained by Aubert, Jean Barthe said:
‘If you wait 30 minutes, he (Aubert) will be here.’
It was an emotional moment, meeting the great ‘Pipette’. By this time, Marie had found the bar – women have built-in antennae – and her charm ensured the free drinks flowed well into the night.
We finished up sleeping in the barn of the vineyard, where the English chap worked. The hay was more comfortable than the thin mattress in the back of the Kombi.
So, in 1989, with an expense account provided by Rupert Murdoch, I was determined to repay that hospitality.
I walked into the Bar Le Rugby on that September day, 1989, and there was Jean Barthe behind the bar. He didn’t remember me. Undeterred, I insisted on shouting the bar. I think there were six other patrons, and they toasted me with broad, bemused smiles, as I tried to jog Jean’s memory about that night in ’78.
The Queensland league team had opened the tour with a 42-8 win over Aquitaine Midi-Pyrenees in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a town I had not visited previously, but would get to know very well in future years.
Game two was against L’Aude selection (players from the Carcassonne, Lezignan and Limoux clubs) at Stade Albert Domec, Carcassonne, where today there is a statue of Puig Aubert.
The Queensland team had shifted camp from Toulouse to Montpellier, where they would remain, until spending a few nights R & R in Paris, before the flight home.
From Toulouse the team had visited the religious pilgrimage centre, Lourdes, where my wife, Marie and I had stayed in our Kombi van, at Easter, 1978.
That was about the only sight seeing from Toulouse, with Qld coach, Greg Reynolds determined his charges would prepare well for the job at hand. There were of course, nights out in Toulouse city centre, including one lovely visit to a fairground, on a balmy evening.
It was freezing on the night Queensland played L’Aude, but the conditions did not worry the boys from the Sunshine State, who won 32-4.
Prop, Rion Pearce, a jackeroo, who played club football for Chinchilla, was the Queensland player of the match, while L’Aude’s best was Daniel Divet, a former Manly-Warringah player. Valleys’ hooker, Bill Holmes was tour captain, but Wests’ Kevin Langer was skipper for the Carcassonne match, which was attended by Barthe and Aubert.
I waved from the media box, but I still don’t think they remembered ’78. Well, it was a big night.
More on the 1989 tour in future posts.
1 Queensland players (from left), Terry Cook, Bill Johnson, Bill Holmes and Kevin Langer having a good time at the Toulouse Olympique Rugby League Club
2 Rion Pearce
3 Jean Barthe (left) and Steve Ricketts in Bar Le Rugby 1978
4 Puig Aubert and Steve Ricketts in 1978. That’s Jean Barthe taking the ball up, in the background picture.
5 South of France, rugby league heartland.