Roanne was once a power house in rugby league, with the funds to buy rugby union superstars, such as Jean Barthe and Aldo Quaglio, both regarded as the best players in their positions in the 15-man game, back in 1959.
The Loire River city, famous for its textile industries, was the first stop for my wife, Marie and I on our 2009 road trip in France, starting in Lyon, and taking us to Collioure, near the border with Spain, and then back to Bordeaux.
We had already spent a week in the UK, and three nights in Lyon, the culinary capital of France.
Our car was really a van – a Fiat something or other – and it purred beautifully as we zoomed through the tunnel, taking us out of Lyon, into the countryside.
Roanne was our lunch stop, and we feasted on pork and tomato baguettes at the canal basin, where a group of English people were just finishing lunch at a restaurant, before re-boarding their boat.
They looked so happy.
From Roanne, we drove through the Loire Gorge, and then along the River Durolle, to Thiers (famous as a cutlery centre) and then on to Clermont-Ferrand, where people were out everywhere, celebrating the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau.
We had drinks at Bar Pascal, a rugby/Irish establishment. The Clermont-Ferrand club even had its own beer, but at 7.2 percent I gave it a miss.
There were some big chaps in the bar, no doubt rugby players, and they didn’t look all that friendly. It wasn’t the time or place to discuss Rugby Treize (league), which had such a foothold at Roanne and Lyon, to the east, in the glory days of the 13-man code in France.
Roanne even hosted a league Test, on January 20, 1960, with Australia winning 16-8, the great Johnny Raper scoring two tries for the Kangaroos. The Test had been set down for the bigger city of Lyon, but was transferred, after snow storms him the region.
The Roanne club, with the backing of Claude Devernois, who owned one of the city’s textile mills, signed Barthe and Quaglio, after they had toured South Africa with the French rugby union side.
But before that, Roanne had boasted the likes of league legend, Elie Brousse (a Catalan product); Agen born P.E. instructor, Raymond Contrastin and another Catalan lad, Joseph Crespo, who is still regarded as the best halfback in French league history.
All three men toured Australia with the all-conquering 1951 French side.
Contrastin shocked Australian journalist, Jim Mathers by swallowing a good half-pint of Australian red wine at the dinner table, but French coach, Jean Duhau reassured him: ‘A half bottle? That is nothing. At home, he distils his own Armagnac, but rarely sells any – he drinks it all himself!”
I wish I had stuck to Armagnac in Clermont-Ferrand! Marie and I dined at Restaurant L’oustagou, where I bravely opted for the tripe.
Now, I had eaten tripe as a kid – I am the eldest of six, and tripe was something my mother could afford, dressing it up nicely in white sauce, with onions. To me, it tasted just fine, and I had no idea it was offal.
But this tripe tasted, well, like tripe, like offal.
An hour later I was violently ill, and I spent the whole night spewing. I just wanted to roll over and die.
My wife thought that might happen, and was resigned to me going to hospital.
The next morning, she bought electrolytes at a pharmacy, pumped them into me, and we bravely drove out of Clermont-Ferrand, heading for Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a rugby league stronghold, famous for the prunes produced locally. (I would not be needing them).
It was such a nice (November) day, it made driving almost bearable, through the Limousin countryside, where there were few settlements, lots of forest and farmland. We had two roadside stops, one where people were exercising their dogs, the other where they were exercising their cats.
We got off the Motorway, south of Perigueux, and then drove through Bergerac to ‘Vill’, where we had stayed in 2007, and where I had covered a match on the Queensland Residents’ rugby league tour of France in 1989.
Once again, we were to stay at home of Tyldesley (England) couple, Terry and Joyce Holmes, in Rue de Parasol.
Terry and Joyce were back in England, so we had the house to ourselves. We were greeted by local, Cacha Sonilhac, a friend of the Holmes, and a dedicated rugby league man, who supported St Helens in England.
Cacha had wine and pate for us, but all I wanted was chicken noodle soup.
More on our French travels later.
1 Marie Ricketts in Lyon in 2009
2 Steve Ricketts in Roanne
3 French lock, Georges Fages breaks from the scrum at Roanne in 1960. Australia’s Jim Paterson has him covered
4 French forward, Marcel Bescos nurses a broken rib after the Roanne Test.