Louis Bonnery was National Technical Director of the French Rugby League and coach of the National Universities Rugby League side when my Kangaroo Supporters’ Tour group arrived in his region of France in 1998.
The former Test winger came through the ranks of the Limoux club, in France’s L’Aude province, and his intimate knowledge of the area, and the broader Languedoc-Roussillon region, proved invaluable for me, as I planned the trip.
I had 31 people on board, most of them rugby league fans, and many having signed up before the cycle of Kangaroo tours was torpedoed by the Super League War. The group included the likes of Brisbane league personalities, Brian and Elaine Smart; Stan and Eleanor Neave (Easts); Rod and Judy Jennings and Jim and Lesley Gibson (Souths)
My 1990 and ’94 tours had started in London and Rome respectively, and this one got underway in Madrid, with the promise of a large rugby league component in south west France.
After two nights in Madrid and another two in Barcelona, we travelled over the Pyrenees mountains into the small town of Arles-Sur-Tech (Arles on the River Tech) where we were greeted by the Mayor and other local dignitaries, all thanks to Louis Bonnery.
We were treated to a lavish morning tea in the town hall, and then given the chance to explore this beautiful place, the highlight the Gothic cloisters of the ancient Benedictine Abbey.
The local stadium is named after legendary rugby league player, Puig Aubert, whose family hails from the town. Earlier in 1998, Great Britain beat France 35-28 in a Student’s international rugby league match at the ground.
The main reason we are treated so well in these parts, is the fact Australians know so much about Puig Aubert, and the locals are delighted that we have made the effort to visit his old haunts. Puig Aubert is buried in the town, but we did not have time to visit his grave.
From Arles, we drove into Perpignan, and then east to Carcassonne, where we were to stay two nights.
Most people dined in-house, at the excellent restaurant in the Mercure Hotel, next to the walls of the ‘Old Cite’.
Some of us made it down to the main square in the ‘new town’ to have a few drinks at rugby league stronghold, Bar Felix, where there was a brass band playing out on the footpath.
The next day we headed south to Limoux, where the people speak Occitan, which is regarded as the oldest romance language. Louis Bonnery says they speak French, only when they go up to Lyon, Paris or Strasbourg.
First we toured the Co-operative of the Blanquette (the oldest sparkling wine in the world) producers – wine growers who live in and around 42 villages in the Aude region. As far back as 931, Limoux protected by decree, the character of its wines.
Next came another Mayoral reception and the chance to meet players and officials from the Limoux Rugby League Club, among them Laurence Raleigh, from Gilgandra in New South Wales, whose father Larry, came from Townsville and played for Newtown in Sydney. Laurence’s uncle is prominent swim coach, Vince Raleigh, who I played rugby league with, at Brisbane Brothers.
Our group dined at a local pizzeria and then headed back to Carcassonne, where there was yet another mayoral reception. By this time everyone was ‘mayored out’, but we certainly felt honored to have been treated so royally.
My basic knowledge of French got a work-out, as it was up to me to respond to the many speeches that came with these receptions.
It is all a bit of a blur really.
To quote Benjamin Disraeli: ‘Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen’.
1 The Mayor of Arles-sur-Tech presents Steve Ricketts with a momento of his group’s visit in 1998
2 Puig Aubert and Elie Brousse, two heroes of France’s 1951 series win in Australia
3 Steve Ricketts samples the sparkling wine of Limoux
4 Official reception at Limoux
5 Limoux’s Francis de Nadai attacks against Catalans, in a match at Carcassonne
6 Limoux celebrate Cup glory
7 Louis Bonnery
8 Members of Steve Ricketts’ 1998 tour group enjoy lunch in Limoux (from left) Elaine Smart, Lesley Gibson, Karen Power, Stan Neave, Steve Ricketts, Jim Gibson and Brian Smart,