The exploits of the 1951 French rugby league side in Australia and New Zealand are the stuff of legend.
But spare a thought for the generations of French players who had to follow in their footsteps.
No matter how well they performed, they would invariably be told they were not as good as (skipper) Puig Aubert and his men in ’51.
In 1965, when French league was climbing back from a couple of disastrous years, the touring Kiwis felt the full brunt of a revitalised home side, led by Marcel Bescos from Limoux.
France made it a clean sweep with a 28-5 win in the Third Test in Toulouse with winger, Jean-Claude Marty, from Lezignan, scoring two tries while halfback, Roger Garnung from Bordeaux-Facture, scored a try and kicked five goals.
The home team’s handling was often brilliant, despite muddy conditions, and the French were so much more mobile than the Kiwis.
The game had been scheduled for Toulouse’s main stadium, but was switched to the smaller, Stade des Minimes after the River Garonne suddenly flooded its banks and made the road to the main stadium impassable. Stade Minimes was the first ground where the ‘new rugby’ was played in Toulouse, back in the 1930s.
At the post match function, former French coach, Jean Duhau reminded the players and guests that he was one of the pioneers, a member of the first French team to travel to England, in April, 1934.
Writing in Miroir des Sports, Roger Bastide said there was a feeling of annoyance in the room, as everyone braced for a ‘In my day, we were a much better team’ style address.
Instead, Duhau immediately won over the room by describing the French effort against the Kiwis as ‘magnificent’.
Duhau’s tone then became sad.
“I listened to Puig Aubert on the radio tonight: ‘Yes they won, but the Kiwis were a shadow of themselves, an exhausted outfit,’ Aubert said.
“It wasn’t good for our ‘Pipette’ to talk like that, and I don’t approve. In fact, I’ll say the opposite. 1951 was a year of triumph which has entered into folklore. France’s greatest team!
“Well, I want to tell you something. In 1951, when we made our first visit to Australia, they (Australia) were rubbish. They didn’t know how to play rugby league. We taught them how. At first they were dismayed, mystified even, then began to patiently learn from us, taking everything on board, and that’s the only reason they’ve become so strong. The New Zealanders too. This has not turned out exactly to our benefit”.
Duhau described the 1965 Kiwis as a really tough lot, the real thing.
“When they run at you with the ball tucked under their arms, then is not the time to pick daisies,” he said. “You got on top and, in the end, crushed them, simply because of the pack’s incredible tackling – tackling like I’ve never seen before, in my 50 years of rugby, league or union.
“Our sparkle and subtlety is something they’ll never have. It can’t be taught, you’re born with it. And we’ve got it. So why, with our talent, do we need to fear anyone? We don’t. The future is ours.”
1 Puig Aubert, teammates and support staff celebrate their 1951 series win in Australia
2 Roger Garrigue prepares to fend off young Kiwi forward, Robert Orchard in Toulouse in 1965
3 Kiwi forward, Kevin Dixon charges past Marcel Bescos
4 French prop, Christian Sabatie in the thick of the action in Toulouse in 1965.