Rugby League in France soared to incredible highs and plummeted to unparalleled lows in the 1960s, a decade covered by noted English rugby league author, Roger Grime, from St Helens, in his latest written work.
‘Stormy Sixties’ explores the 50 Test matches played by France, from the World Cup in Britain at the end of the 1960 season, to the Jean Galia Cup tournament with Wales and England, late in 1969.
It is the follow up to ‘Still Crowing’, Roger’s account of the 62 Tests played by France between 1951 and 1960, including the 1960 tour of Australia and New Zealand.
France drew the three Test series against Australia in mid-1960, and, as a result, feared no-one, as they knew they had a side built on courage and flair.
Injuries to key players ruined their chances in the World Cup later that year, and by the time they set off for their next tour of Australia, in 1964, the Chanticleers were a shadow of their glory days, thanks to key retirements and late withdrawals.
But thanks largely to heroic prop, Marcel Bescos, a fishmonger from Toulon, France returned to the winners’ list. By the time the 1967/68 Kangaroos arrived in France, the home side was a formidable outfit, and they won two Tests and drew the other against the Reg Gasnier coached tourists.
The following year, France reached the World Cup final in Sydney, a match I was privileged to see as a 15-year-old schoolboy.
France won 21 of those 50 Tests in the 1960s and drew four.
Top French sports journalist, Henri Garcia from L’Equipe, described the 1964 French tour of Australia and New Zealand as something like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow – 100 days of hardship.
Garcia said few of the youthful 1964 squad would have made the 1960 touring side, and even fewer would have been considered for the triumphant 1951 and 1955 outfits.
“It is brutally true that they were no match for an Australian side that has never enjoyed such resources to pick from, and was so powerful, so brilliant,” Garcia wrote. “Didn’t their triumph in England the winter before prove how much the standard in Australia has risen?
“Their players have become faster, fitter, an outstanding crop, whose effectiveness in attack is staggering, and whose cruel defence, so consistent, that, in the final reckoning, they are unbeatable against a side which lacks quality.”
Later in the year, France played Great Britain in Perpignan, with new French Rugby League president, Raphael Joue imploring hard man prop, Marcel Bescos, now playing with Limoux, to make a comeback, and lead his country.
“My dear Bescos, I’ve not just entrusted you with the captaincy of France XIII. You’ve to realise that the whole future of our sport and our Federation rests on your shoulders this afternoon and depends on the result,” Joue said.
France won 18-8 and went on to win 13 of their remaining 22 Tests in the 1960s, with two draws.
Although Bescos’s comeback was significant, the rock of the French side in the 1960s was prop, Georges Ailleres from the Toulouse Olympique club. He remains France’s most capped forward (38 Tests), alongside Gabriel Berthomieu, a truck driver from Albi, whose hobby was crocodile hunting.
Captain of club and country, Ailleres’ leadership was a vital factor in France’s revival after the 1964 tour, of which he was part. He was captain in 1968 when France defeated Britain and New Zealand to reach the World Cup final at the SCG, the match I saw as a schoolboy.
Australia won 20-2, but the score did not indicate the ferocity of the contest.
Ailleres’ son, Pierre played 12 Tests for France between 1984 and 1992, and toured Australia in 1990, when I interviewed him in Rockhampton ahead of the match against Queensland Residents at Browne Park. I showed Pierre photographs of his father, published in the 1968 edition of ‘Rugby League Life’, and he got quite emotional.
The year before, Pierre had captained an Aquitaine Midi-Pyrenees Selection against the touring Queensland Residents side at Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a match which I also covered for ‘The Courier-Mail’. And then in 2007, I met Pierre again, when he was coach of St Gauden’s Colts and my wife, Marie and I were guests of the Villeneuve club at the post-match reception.
France finished the 1960s with an 8-2 win over Wales at Salford, followed by an 11-all draw with England at Wigan. France had just 48 hours to freshen up after the win over the Welsh.
The English were hot favorites, and for them the draw was like a defeat.
Writing in Miroir-Sprint, Raoul Vignettes said the English had superior talent, but did not change their tactics to counter the sweeping defensive line of the French.
“This is the Latin element the British have never managed to get to grips with,” Vignettes wrote.
The Latin element has been largely lost to our international game, and we are much poorer for not having a strong French side.
Well done Roger Grime, for reminding us that France was indeed part of the big four of rugby league, along with Australia, Britain and New Zealand. It was a time when rugby league was at the pinnacle of international team sport in Australia.
1 Stormy Sixties
2 Patrick White from Canterbury province scores for the Kiwis at Carlaw Park, Auckland against the 1964 French tourists
3 Marcel Bescos leaves the field in triumph after leading France to victory over Britain, late in 1964
4 Michel Molinier (St Gauden’s) in action in the 1967-68 Test series win over Australia. Tony Branson is the Aussie defender
5 Georges Ailleres, France’s rock of the 1960s
6 England centre, Syd Hynes passes under pressure from Michel Molinier at Wigan in 1969.