DIARY OF A RETIRED RUGBY LEAGUE WRITER.
WEEK 38, 2019
Another day at Aurillac would have been too much. It is not the most exciting town in France, if I can put it that way. My wife, Marie and I are on the home stretch of our six-week holiday, the highlight having been a 13-day river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. Following brief stays in Lyon, and then at a chateau in the Gorges Du Tarn, we had made Aurillac, in the rural Cantal region, our home for six nights, mainly as a base from which to tour surrounding areas. Claudie, the owner of our apartment, provided reading material, which included a family history. She had relatives who were rugby union players, and this is very much a union area, with Aurillac fielding a team in the lower divisions of the national set-up. One of those relations was Pierrot Berger, who played for French Combined Services. But THE team of the region is Clermont Ferrand, and their merchandise dominates in a local sports shop. On television, during our stay, we were bombarded with rugby union, given the World Cup was being held in Japan. One of the many people interviewed was Camille Lopez, a drop goal expert.
There also was lot of volleyball, something my wife enjoyed. There was a France v Finland game on September 21 (won 3-0 by France) and Marie really got into it.
On leaving Aurillac, our destination is the rugby league stronghold of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, the first town in France to defect to the new code, in 1934. On the way, we walk around the lovely village of La Roquebrou, where the last flowers of summer are being removed from around a fountain, by a council worker. We have a picnic lunch at a small hillside village, where the church yard is a mine-field of dog poo. I have never seen anything like it.
In Villeneuve, we stay with our English friends, Terry and Joyce Holmes, who have had a house here for some time. They have a big back yard, so much so, a neighbour, of Sardinian descent, wanted to graze sheep there. Terry is great mates with local league legend, Raymond Gruppi, a former 200m sprint champion, who played 16 Tests between 1959 and 1963, and toured Australia and New Zealand in 1960. He later became a prominent horse trainer. On one rugby league trip to the UK, from France, with Villeneuve VIPS, Terry was passed off as a director of the club. Terry and Joyce’s UK home is located at Tyldesley in Greater Manchester. A former neighbour was Great Britain rugby league star, Dave Bolton, who rated Wigan’s Welsh winger, Billy Boston, ‘a class above modern players’.
The big news from Britain, is the collapse of Thomas Cook, with 150,000 passengers stranded and 22,000 jobs lost. On our first trip to the UK in 1977, we had Thomas Cook Travellers’ Cheques.
Morning tea at The Chez Toi with Terry and Joyce; local league personalities, Antoine Guiliano and Cacha Sonilhac. Antoine took flying lessons as a young man. He refers to former Wynnum-Manly player, Steve Plath as his ‘sentimental son’, as a result of Steve’s playing stint at Villeneuve. Antoine shows me photographs of former Australian forward, Paul Sironen, during his time playing for Vill. One of the pictures shows ‘Sirro’ passing to Antoine’s son-in-law, who played for local lower division side, Bias. A rugby league jersey from the nearby Pujols club is hanging in the bar window.
Lunch at Au Fil de l’eau, at St Silvestre, on the banks of the River Lot.
Former French international, Vincent Wulf, a friend of Terry and Joyce’s, is coaching a women’s team in Bordeaux. Like Australia, France are able to boast about increased participation, largely because of women taking up the game. Vincent coached La Reole (men’s team), on the River Garonne, last year. David Despin is the new coach of Villeneuve-sur-Lot Leopards, after Julien Rinaldi stepped down, ahead of his move to Australia to live.
Morning tea is courtesy of Antoine, as his way of saying sorry for not being at The Chez Toi, as he is babysitting his nine-year-old granddaughter.
Lunch in the small town of Castlemoron (no, it is not named after me), on the banks of the Lot, where there once stood a priory. A simple place – Cafe du Commerce – but very good. Red wine served up in medicine bottles.
Drive south towards Agen, to the lovely hilltop village of Clermont-Dessous, which provides great views. Walk Lateral a la Garrone, from Bruch Bridge to Montesquieu, observing French rural life and passing aquatic traffic.
Return to ‘Vill’, via well-planned village of Playsiss.
Big night at Cacha’s house. He is wearing a Gerringong Lions’ rugby league polo, from Australia. While we are wining and dining, news comes through that former French president, Jacques Chirac, has died, aged 86. Cacha liked him, and Charles de Gaulle, for that matter.
French rugby legend, Jacques Merquey turns 90. Merquey, played four union Tests from the Toulon club, before switching to league with Marseilles in 1950. He went on to play 39 league Tests and was part of the successful French teams in Australia in 1951 and ’55.
Lunch at Black Prince, Monflanquin, where there are amazing photos of the prune market. This area is famous for prunes, rather than wine. I have a ‘Basque Burger’, while Marie has hake and chips. There are lots of English people in this lovely hillside village.
Buffet dinner at a wine shop in Vill, owned by former France Rugby League captain, Olivier Elima. Olivier has vineyards in the Pyrenees. Our host looks like West Indian cricket great, Viv Richards. I chat with local league identities, one of whom (Michel) won a division 2 title. Not sure who with.
Terry sees Christian Sabatie’s son, a policeman, go by, as we drink our coffee. Christian Sabatie, a mechanic, played 29 rugby league Tests for France between 1964 and 1972, and was known as ‘Monsieur Caramel’, because of his fiery tackling. I saw him play for France in the 1968 World Cup final against Australia at the SCG, and then met him during our first visit to Vill., in 2007. Born at Allez-et-Cazeneuve, just to the south of Villeneuve, he won a championship and challenge cup with Villeneuve in 1964, the same year he toured Australia and New Zealand.
After walking around the busy Saturday market, it is time for oysters at Bar le Glacier, where two of the richest men in town are also partaking. The oysters are accompanied by Gascogne white wine. So civilised. Cacha arrives, wearing his St Helens’ polo, while Antoine has a Wigan shirt. What a pair of characters. Top fighter, Samir Ziani is having coffee.
Dinner at and Italian restaurant, before returning to Bar le Glacier. Such decadence.
On his return from Mass, with Joyce, Terry says French priests are ‘a bit fire and brimstone’. Drive to hill-top, Pujols for their famous market. Check out the local rugby league ground, where the grandstand is named after Damian Tejero, father-in-law of Olivier Elima. Huge lunch at Cacha’s house, where his dog, ‘Brisbane’, sits at our feet. This time Cacha is wearing a Cairns Brothers rugby league polo. Cacha’s son, Luc was president of the La Reole club, which Marie and I have visited. Cacha and his lady, really go to a lot of trouble – oysters, duck, apple pie and plenty of beer wine.
Featherstone Rovers belt Toulouse Olympique in a televised match from Toulouse, with Mullumbimby junior, Dane Chisholm man of the match. Fellow Australian, Ryan Carr is a proud coach, as his club remains in line for promotion to Super League. Featherstone bring with them a large group of supporters, mainly young males, and they certainly enjoy a beer or two.
1 Steve Ricketts opposite Bar Le Glacier, Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Note the rugby league emblem on the building
2 Terry and Joyce Holmes
3 Antoine Guiliano (left) and Cacha Sonilhac
4 Oyster time outside Bar Le Glacier
5 Garrone Canal
6 Pujols rugby league field and the Damian Tejero Stand
7 Rugby League in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in the 1960s
8 The clan. Former Test rugby league winger, Raymond Gruppi (right)
9 Wine tasting at Olivier Elima’s shop
10 Cacha brings the tea for Marie Ricketts and Joyce Holmes.