Agricultural studies and rugby league were strange bedfellows at La Reole, in the Gironde-Aquitaine region of France, when my wife, Marie and I visited the riverside town in October, 2011.
The La Reole club had partnered with a local college to encourage young men to gravitate to the town to study, and to play a bit of footy as well.
When we were there, the club boasted several Australians, a Kiwi, a Canadian and a Cambodian.
The day before, the club had lost 35-34 away to Lyon, with one of the La Reole players breaking his wrist.
The drive to La Reole took Marie and I through the former tobacco growing centre of Tonneins, where the likes of Queenslanders, Terry Webb, Jim Vanderham and Wally Fullerton-Smith played in the 1980s.
We had been invited to visit La Reole by Luc Sonilhac, the son of Cacha Sonilhac, one our friends in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, the first city in France to switch from union to league, way back in 1934.
We met Luc outside the Rex Cinema, where a hippie looking bloke was strumming away on a guitar. Luc; Australian players Peter Savage and Nick Walker and Kiwi, Scott Hurrell took us to the college, where we met a female teacher who took us on a tour of the campus.
Walker is a nephew of long serving Brisbane Souths’ chief executive, Jim McClelland. Savage went to St Pat’s College, Shorncliffe on Brisbane’s northern bayside, and played rugby league for Albany Creek. He knew my former Brisbane Brothers’ rugby league teammate, Murray Schultz, who worked at St Pat’s and coached rugby union.
Hurrell, who looked a bit like Kiwi star, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, played league in Rockhampton in Queensland and worked at Beef City.
After the college, Luc took us on walking tour to La Reole’s clubhouse, via the footy field, which was overlooked by the local administrative centre, which was once a priory. Marie and I were then invited to attend a committee meeting in the clubhouse, and to possibly contribute. The language barrier made that virtually impossible.
A local pizzeria was a club sponsor, so we adjourned there for dinner, before the long drive back to Villeneuve.
The trip to La Reole came after a hectic couple of days of travel, to the east of Villeneuve (La Reole is to the west).
We had driven to medieval Figeac, via Cahor, Vers and Corn, meeting Villefranche de Rouergue rugby league identity and former player, Gilles Fleuret in the Figeac town centre. After a tour of Figeac, we followed Gilles to his village, Lambayac, where we met his wife, Maree, the daughter of French rugby league great, Francis de Nadai, from Limoux.
We walked to a local chateau, where we declined an invitation from the owner, to come inside for a look. Darkness was closing in, and Gilles wanted to take us to a fairy-tale lookout, a jump-off point for hang gliders.
Villefranche lock, Clement Roux joined us for dinner (vegetable soup, followed by steak and veg). Clement was keen to go to Australia to experience working in the sports media.
Gilles rose early the next day to get fresh bread and croissants from his parents, his dad being a baker. After breakfast we drove to Villeneuve
de Rouergue, so Gilles and Maree could vote in a ‘pre-election’.
After pork chops for lunch, we drove to St Cirq Lapopie, overlooking the River Lot – surely one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Before returning, to Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Gilles presented me with Francis de Nadai’s 1968 World Cup track suit top, a lovely gesture.
Gilles knew I had watched de Nadai play for France against Australia, at the SCG, in the final of the 1968 World Cup tournament, which was held in Australia and New Zealand. I was just 15 at the time, and had represented North Coast in the New South Wales under-9 stone, state titles at Gosford, prior to the World Cup final. Australia won 20-2, but the contest was much tighter than the score indicates, with the French tackling magnificently, as Australia dominated possession.
A boarding-school teacher, de Nadai made his Test debut against Australia in 1967, in Marseilles, in a Test which finished in a 7-all draw. France won the next two Tests to win the series against the Kangaroos, who had won the Ashes series against Great Britain, 2-1.
On retirement from the playing ranks in 1975, de Nadai left teaching to become Technical Advisor to the Rugby League Federation, a post he held until 2005.
1 La Reole Rugby League 2011
2 Jim Vanderham (left) and Steve Ricketts
3 St Cirq Lapopie
4 France’s 1968 rugby league World Cup squad. Francis de Nadai is sixth from the left, standing.