A review of the French sporting press out of Paris during the early 1950s reveals an interesting story about rugby league and one of the strongest French club teams of the day, Marseille.
The 1952-53 season saw Marseille involved in something of a running battle with the French Rugby League hierarchy, as more than one game involving their First Division side was abandoned by the referee prior to the scheduled conclusion of play.
The 1952-53 season had been one of much promise for Marseille - at the time one of the true giants of the French rugby league scene. The club was a powerful one guided by a steady and resolute administration headed by spirits millionaire Paul Ricard and operated out of the principal stadium in the city, Le Stade Velodrome.
The team itself was extremely strong and was graced to also be full of talented and gifted individuals. The focal point for the combination was the explosive Jacques Merquey – a world-class centre and French captain during much of the 1950s – who had proved such a star on the 1951 French Tour of Australia and New Zealand.
A core of senior international standard players and a very strong roster drawn by the attractions of a big city club were central to the success attained by Marseille in the post-Second World War French rugby league competitions.
Marseille had experienced much success in recent French domestic seasons with a French Championship win in 1949 (their first and last to date) and French Cup wins in 1948 and 1949.
Added to this silverware were quality performances during the 1949-50 and 1951-52 seasons, during which they were runners-up in the French Championship – losing in each case to the might of Puig-Aubert's AS Carcassonne in successive finals (7-21 and 6-18).
A typical Marseille side during the 1952-1953 season would prove to be:
Wingers: Prudhom, Grasseau
Centres: Merquey, Hatchondo
Second-rowers: Negrier, Delaye
Props: Rinaldi, Beraud
As can be seen, the usual Marseille line-up was an extremely competent set of footballers, disciplined in the requirements of high-level club football and in most cases also representative and international level rugby league (ten of those listed above represented France). Accordingly, an understandably high level of expectation again accompanied the Marseille team into the French domestic season of 1952-53.
Marseille's draw in the run-up to Christmas and New Year was as follows (the French domestic season runs September through to May of the following year):
14/9/52: vs Avignon - Home
21/9/52: vs Lezignan - Away
28/9/52: vs Toulouse - Home
5/10/52: vs Villeneuve - Away
12/10/52: vs Albi - Away
19/10/52: vs Celtic Paris - Home
26/10/52: vs Cavaillon - Home
2/11/52: vs Carcassonne - Away
9/11/52: vs Carpentras - Home
18/11/52: vs Bordeaux - Away
30/11/52: vs Perpignan - Away
7/12/52: vs Lyon - Home
21/12/52: vs Celtic Paris - Home
Emile Toulouse's 8 September 1952 season preview in the Paris weekly Miroir-Sprint expected what he saw as a “continuation of the Carcassonne-Lyon-Marseille success of recent years”. Toulouse's prediction concluded with the view that the likely challengers to that all-conquering triumvirate would be Perpignan, Villeneuve, Albi and Bordeaux.
Things started brightly for Marseille (“les Phoceens”) in Round 1 with a comprehensive victory over local rivals Avignon before the faithful in the much loved Le Stade Velodrome (38-10). Celtic Paris showed that Puig-Aubert's recent transfer to the capital would prove beneficial with a good 15-7 home win over Albi, a result which delighted Paris President Maurice Tardy. In other results, Cavaillon upset Perpignan and Lyon and Toulouse fought out an entertaining 16-all draw.
From there, Marseille moved to the extremely picturesque but compact home ground of Lezignan, Stade Moulin, draped in Lezignan's team colours with the white of the picket-fences and the green of the main stand.
As many other teams have experienced throughout the history of the French Championship, Marseille were unable to surpass the rigour and energy of Lezignan at home, crashing to a shock ten points to eight loss. Doubtless the consumption of much quality local red wine followed late into that night at Stade Moulin and then the nearby brasseries of Lezignan. Mighty Marseille! Defeated by tiny Lezignan! The joy!
Shocked into an immediate response, Marseille took out the frustration of the Lezignan defeat by crushing Toulouse 33-5 at home in Round 3.
Felix Bergese, the “Basque Wizard” who was such a longstanding feature of the Carcassonne backline at five-eighth, had taken over the coaching reins at Toulouse, a city always crying out for success to justify its position as the “rugby capital” of France. Hatchondo was superb for Marseille as tries rained down on a Toulouse side which had previously been coasting along high in the table.
Marseille's strong performance saw them secure third spot following three rounds of football (on seven points), while Carcassonne and Celtic Paris shared top billing on the maximum nine points.
An away match at Villeneuve has always held concerns for Marseille at the best of times but the four-nil loss that occurred at the birthplace of French rugby league on 5 October 1952 saw Marseille's position on the table immediately drop to equal fifth with Albi after four rounds.
Furthermore, the prospect of falling even further in the table loomed with another away trip, this time to Albi (who now shared the same rung of the league ladder as Marseille with eight points). Albi's greater confidence following a narrow win over the emerging Bordeaux the weekend previous seemingly did not bode well for Marseille.
At this stage, Emile Toulouse's pre-season prediction of Marseille-Lyon-Carcassonne dominance was looking less than certain with Celtic Paris top of the table and Toulouse in fourth position.
Certainly, his writing partner from Miroir-Sprint, Edouard Seidler, had changed the newspaper's tune by this time, describing the competition as the “New Championship of [rugby] Treize”, while Le Miroir Des Sports's Rene Laborderie had never been as negative to begin with on the subject of the competitiveness of the French Championship in 1952-1953.
Albi's ten-five home win over Marseille must surely have sent alarm bells ringing all along Marseille's Le Canebiere. Described as “disappointing”, Marseille went down to an Albi side “now setting a magnificent standard”. The game, while tight, revealed major flaws in Marseille's attempt to obtain one of the four finals berths on offer in 1952-53.
After five rounds, the French Championship table bore little resemblance to the pre-season predictions of the pundits:
1. Celtic Paris: 5 matches, 15 points
2. Carcassonne: 5 matches, 13 points
3. Toulouse: 5 matches, 12 points
4. Albi: 5 matches, 11 points
5. Villeneuve: 5 matches, 11 points
6. Lyon: 5 matches, 10 points
7. Marseille: 5 matches, 9 points
8. Bordeaux: 3 matches, 7 points
9. Cavaillon: 5 matches, 7 points
10. Catalans: 4 matches, 6 points
11. Carpentras: 4 matches, 6 points
12. Lezignan: 5 matches, 6 points
13. Avignon: 4 matches, 5 points
Middle of the table after five rounds was not so much a case of Marseille failing to meet high expectations but seemingly of those hopes nearly evaporating altogether.
The redeeming feature of what was otherwise an unpalatable start to the 1952-1953 campaign was the prospect of the next two games being at home within the intimidating Le Velodrome – even if the first of them was to be against the team sitting astride the top of the leaderboard, the unbeaten Celtic Paris.
The 19 October 1952 meeting of Marseille and Celtic Paris at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille was truly an epic in the history of domestic French rugby league. A near-capacity crowd piled into the venerable stadium to witness the locals try to knock off the invaders from the capital and restore some parity to what had otherwise been a disastrous beginning to the campaign.
In what was described by Le Miroir Des Sports as a “very spectacular match”, the referee, Monsieur Dubernat, stopped play with some twenty minutes remaining and did not return to the field of play.
At the time, Celtic Paris were leading Marseille five-nil following a glorious first-half try to Prevost and superb conversion by international full-back Puig-Aubert.
Paris had been reduced to, firstly, 12 men, with the retirement through injury of lock forward Roigt (no replacements were allowed during rugby league worldwide in this period) and then 11, with the expulsion of Puig-Aubert. Marseille lock forward Raoul Perez was also marched by referee Dubernat, reducing the match to a contest of 11 on 12.
This saw the entire scene escalate into an argument between most of the opposing players and ultimately punches were thrown. It was in this context that the referee left the playing arena with a good quarter of the usual 80 minutes of play remaining. He would not return; leaving the players to resolve their differences on the playing field and ultimately in continuing arguments along the touchline.
The French Rugby League, furious with the actions of the players in leading to what they saw as the referee's legitimate withdrawal from the game, would later determine that neither Celtic Paris nor Marseille would receive any benefit from the match, with both teams remaining on the same number of points and for and against unaffected.
Both teams accepted the punishment grudgingly – although given the score at the time the match was abandoned, perhaps Paris could feel more aggrieved at the loss of three competition points.
For Marseille, there was no let-up to the troubled start to the season with this decision resulting in them dropping a further place to eighth, Bordeaux taking the opportunity of a 52-7 thrashing of Lezignan to climb over the southern port city into seventh spot.
France's loss to Wales on 25 October 1952 by 22 points to 16 featured two Marseille players in half-back Dop and prop Rinaldi, so not even those international players could bring much-needed momentum to the next Marseille encounter, this time again at home to lowly Cavaillon.
Lowly Cavaillon! It was precisely this type of talk that had fired the bellies of the Vauclusians for decades and a traditionally “hot” derby was again predicted for the 1952-53 season. While only sitting tenth on the ladder (equal with Perpignan and Carpentras), Cavaillon was expected to make the going tough for Marseille, even within the familiar confines of the southern city's holy grail of sport.
Marseille, however, perhaps in a sign of improving fortunes, rebuffed the challenge with some authority, giving Cavaillon a thorough kicking which resulted in a comfortable 22-0 victory.
Carcassonne, cruising along in second position on the table, accounted for Marseille at home (12-10) during Round 8 in what was a desperately tight and tense match to ensure les Phoceens remained in eighth position for at least one more week - with another pending derby, this time with Carpentras, awaiting in the next round.
Any boost of confidence provided by another strong win over Carpentras (27-2) was immediately tempered by the thought of the further challenges ahead – particularly the daunting double road trip of a resurgent Bordeaux (sixth) and the always menacing Perpignan.
In what was undoubtedly one of their best results of the season to date, Marseille survived the fiery atmosphere of Bordeaux's Stade Municipal to triumph 18-9.
Buoyed by the return of Jacques Merquey from injury, Marseille turned on the style to score some classic rugby league tries, with young tyro Guy Delaye beginning to make an impact for Marseille with his off-loading ability and bullocking running.
Another away win, this time at Perpignan by the more comfortable scoreline of 14-0, saw Marseille consolidate an improved sixth position during Round 11, just outside a top five all vying for four semi-final places: Carcassonne (27 points), Celtic Paris (25), Villeneuve (25), Lyon (23) and Toulouse (23).
And so to Marseille's penultimate match of the 1952 calendar year, against equal fourth-placed Lyon, at home. At this stage, it was becoming a question of which Marseille would stand up - that which had proved capable of losing to eleventh placed Lezignan? Or that which had pushed Celtic Paris right to the wire (until the game was abandoned by the referee) in one of the season's earlier highlights?
In hindsight it would be the latter, for remarkably, this game too was abandoned prior to its proper conclusion! Marseille, leading 12-5, and playing the better football before another large and passionate home crowd, once again allowed their temperament to get the better of them, with punches being exchanged with the hard men from Lyon – a team renowned for producing high quality, tough and durable forwards (particularly in the post-WWII era).
Another melee, another referee determining that play could not continue...
The French Rugby League, embittered by the fact that its initial penalty metered out to Marseille after the abandoned Paris match had been so lightly regarded, met in a state of bewilderment to consider the appropriate action to be taken.
Many suggested Marseille should be stripped of the points earned as a result of the shortened match against Lyon, thus dropping them from equal fourth (with the points from the win against Lyon) to seventh (without them). Naturally, the Marseille hierarchy thought otherwise and resolved to fight any reduction of points imposed by the French Rugby League.
The very real concerns raised by abandoned matches (and clearly expressed by the French Rugby League) were echoed by the Paris press, who urged the French Rugby League to sanction Marseille to avoid a further repeat of what was dubbed the “Marseille case”.
Of course, the fact a revitalised Celtic Paris was running second at the time was no doubt of little relevance in their thinking!
In any event, the French Rugby League determined that stern disciplinary action was required and decided to strip Marseille of the points for the match against Lyon in the hope that a clear message would be sent that further abandoned matches during the course of the 1952-53 season would not be tolerated.
Marseille could do little but accept the punishment, now aware that the impact of two abandoned matches might have a disastrous effect on their 1952-53 campaign.
The following round saw Marseille produce another quality performance against Celtic Paris, peculiarly again at home (given that the 19 October 1952 match between the same sides was also played in Marseille). The Parisiens were downed 17-14, achieved largely through the brilliant play of the mercurial Jean Dop and the ubiquitous Merquey.
Grasseau, always a try-scorer of some repute for Marseille, contributed two beautiful tries and also a goal for good measure. The Marseille public lapped up what was a wonderful exposition of rugby league. It was hoped that the momentum of such a win would carry Marseille far into the year 1953.
Thus, at the turn of the season, Marseille were in sixth position on 28 points – two points outside the finals on current positions – and only one point and two points ahead of Toulouse and Albi respectively. Not the position expected of an equal title favourite - with Lyon (fifth) and Carcassonne (first) – at season's beginning.
Regardless of their standing, one question appeared critical for Marseille: would the “war” with the French Rugby League over abandoned matches continue into the second half of the season?
Marseille's draw for the remainder of the 1952-1953 season was as follows:
1/1/53: vs Carpentras - Away
4/1/53: vs Lyon - Away
11/1/53: vs Albi - Home
24/1/53: vs Cavaillon - Away
8/2/53: vs Carcassonne - Home
15/2/53: vs Catalans - Home
22/2/53: vs Avignon - Away
1/3/53: vs Toulouse - Carcassonne (1/8th Final French Cup)
8/3/53: vs Bordeaux - Home
15/3/53: vs Villeneuve - Home
22/3/53: vs Toulouse - Away
5/4/53: vs Lezignan - Home
12/4/53: vs Celtic Paris - Away
The next remarkable twist in the curious tale of this season was the Toulouse – Albi match of 4 January 1953, which was also stopped by the referee. Toulouse was primarily responsible for the incident which led to the abandonment of this match, although the sides had been more interested in trading blows than tries throughout.
The referee, Monsieur Ribas, originally sent Toulouse player Dubalen from the field. International winger and one of the many stars of the 1951 Antipodes tour, Vincent Cantoni, elected to show support for his team-mate by also leaving the field of play when Dubalen was ejected.
M. Ribas felt, quite rightly, that he had no option but to terminate the game after this incident occurred at the 50-minute mark. At the time, the sides remained locked at 0-0.
Initially, both teams were permitted to keep the two points arising from a draw. The French Rugby League resolved, however, to investigate the match incidents further and to report back on the status of the match following that investigation.
Perhaps with a view to ensuring some consistency across the season (and no doubt to avoid the reaction from Marseille that would otherwise have followed), both sides were deducted a point prior to the conclusion of the next week.
Marseille, again burdened with two away games to begin 1953, defeated both Carpentras and Lyon in good results, 13-8 and 17-3 respectively. This saw some improvement for les Marseillaise with the team rising to outright fourth on the table with 32 points from 14 matches (narrowly ahead of Albi on 31 points from the same number of matches).
Albi's ascent up the table (or otherwise) was again solely within Marseille's control and they took the opportunity of punishing the side from the former Cathar stronghold 16-6 at home at Le Stade Velodrome.
With Lyon, Bordeaux and Carcassonne all having byes, Marseille – 35 points - went equal top (with Lyon) for the first time during the 1952-53 season. Unfortunately, this unfamiliar position was to soon be vacated by les Phoceens.
A narrow nine points to seven win over local rivals Cavaillon (at Cavaillon) in a typical tense and passionate affair preceded another bye and then Marseille faced another bountiful home encounter against a Carcassonne side typically laced with current and former French internationals.
In an epic low-scoring match, Carcassonne clung on to a desperately close 3-2 win, shattering Marseille's noisy home fans. A drop to fifth spot had Miroir Sprint suggesting that Marseille would need to “get the whip out” to be in contention for a final four position and a semi-final spot.
Marseille's frustration was evident when Catalans then visited Le Stade and were promptly thrashed 35-8, helping Marseille back to fourth in an increasingly congested top of the French Championship table.
At this stage, the top seven teams - from Lyon, in first place, to the fading Celtic Paris, in seventh - were separated by a mere seven points.
While their position was an improved one, Marseille now faced a daunting trip to the home ground of their fiercest local rival, Avignon, a venue that had proved a graveyard for them on many previous occasions. In another desperately close encounter, the former City of Popes edged by Marseille 7-5, possibly crushing Marseille's finals hopes. Slipping to sixth place was enough for one Paris weekly to issue an SOS for both Marseille and seventh-placed Celtic Paris.
The French Championship now briefly paused to allow the playing of the final eight of the French Cup for 1953. In a major upset, Marseille were bundled out of the French Cup by a rapidly improving Toulouse, 5-2, at Carcassonne.
France's world-class winger Cantoni was superb for Toulouse, who grabbed a late try through their other international winger Ode Lespes to defeat Marseille in a high-quality Cup tie. While the result was a painful one, it did relieve Marseille of the distraction of extra games and allowed them to focus on the remaining matches in what was an extremely tight Championship race.
The luxury of returning to the fortress of Le Stade Velodrome was well taken by Marseille, with their next result a comprehensive victory over second-placed Bordeaux, by 16 points to 2.
In what was an extremely high-quality round of club football, Toulouse narrowly fell to a desperate Celtic Paris in Toulouse (12-14) and Lyon and Carcassonne played out a classic 10-10 result at Stade Albert Domec in the shadow of the pictorial La Cite at Carcassonne.
A strong home win (14-0) over Villeneuve with Raoul Perez in fine attacking form from lock forward and Jean Dop running amok at half-back saw Marseille consolidate fourth position over Villeneuve themselves, with les Phoceens now 49 points from 21 matches.
In the next round, Bordeaux's loss to top placed Lyon enabled Marseille to hold and improve their position to third place with a comfortable 19-6 away win at Toulouse. The revenge defeat for the recent French Cup loss was particularly satisfying for Marseille – who now saw a Championship finals spot as a distinct probability.
A home flogging of Lezignan (65-7), which did wonders for Marseille's for-and-against, preceded a worrying away loss to Celtic Paris at Saint Ouen in Marseille's final regular match of the season.
Marseille's last round bye saw all of the teams conclude their matches and allowed a proper comparison of the strength of the sides during the 1952-1953 season. Marseille finished fourth (from Albi on for-and-against) and therefore qualified in last place for the semi-finals. The table was as follows:
1. Carcassonne: 24 matches, 58 points
2. Lyon: 24 matches, 57 points
3. Bordeaux: 24 matches, 57 points
4. Marseille: 24 matches, 56 points
5. Albi: 24 matches, 56 points
6. Villeneuve: 24 matches, 54 points
7. Celtic Paris: 23 matches, 53 points
8. Avignon: 24 matches, 46 points
9. Toulouse: 23 matches, 39 points
10. Catalans: 24 matches, 37 points
11. Cavaillon: 23 matches, 35 points
12. Lezignan: 24 matches, 35 points
13. Carpentras 23 matches, 29 points
So after a season that promised much for Marseille, it came down to a semi-final game against the defending French Champions, Puig-Aubert's wonder side, AS Carcassonne, to be played at Albi.
The other semi-final, Lyon versus Bordeaux, was to be played at Marseille's home ground, Le Stade Velodrome. How Marseille must have wished for a chance to play either Lyon or Bordeaux at home rather than the daunting prospect of ASC away at Albi!
In a frankly disappointing result for Les Phoceens, the ASC machine rolled on and over them, a 7-0 final score not properly reflecting the forward dominance of Carcassonne and the greater imagination they showed in attack. Teisseire, in particular, was extremely venomous for Carcassonne, who threatened Marseille repeatedly throughout the match.
In the final analysis, it's perhaps not unfair to say that a number of factors told against Marseille in what was a long and wearing domestic season.
Their ultimate lack of success in both the French Championship and French Cup despite a stellar playing roster is, of course, partly due to the true quality of the opposition clubs in France at this time, with numerous teams capable of challenging for the top places and almost all teams proving extremely difficult to beat in front of their loyal home fans.
Certain factors specific to Marseille and the 1952-1953 season are, however, readily observable.
Firstly, the ongoing conflict with the French Rugby League in relation to the abandoned games against Celtic Paris and then Lyon in the first half of the 1952-1953 season (which led to a lack of focus and ultimately wasted resources in pursuing challenges to the French Rugby League's decisions).
Secondly, the crucial loss of points in each of those matches, which ultimately cost Marseille a better position in the finals series and possibly the opportunity to avoid ASC at the semi-final stage.
Finally, the impact of the heavy representative season on the Marseille team and in particular the toll on the Marseille players called on to represent France at Test level during 1952-1953 (such as Merquey, Rinaldi, Dop and Perez).
All in all, it was a highly memorable, if controversial, season for the team from Marseille.