‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Julien Rinaldi in 2008. After Harlequins, Rinaldi also played Super League for Bradford and Wakefield.
How did you get into Rugby League?
I was born in Villeneuve which is a big Rugby League area and my dad got me into it. He was a big supporter of the game and played a bit when he was younger. I started playing in 1989 as a 10-year-old in the backs. I went on to play for France Under-16s and then went to a sports school in Toulouse for three years, where I did 20 hours of work a week and 20 hours of Rugby League. At that point I knew I wanted a rugby career.
Was it always going to be League?
Yes, it was always my game. I played a couple of games of union for my school but nothing more than that.
When did you start playing for Villeneuve?
It was in 1997 when Dave Ellis was the coach. That was the year of the Treize Tournoi when the leading French sides played the best teams from the clubs outside of Super League and it was the first time I’d travelled and played in England. We reached the final and I came off the bench for Vincent Wulf when we beat Lancashire Lynx in front of a 10,000 crowd at Toulouse. It was a good tournament because back then it was our only chance to play against English teams and it was a shame that it only lasted a year. But at least now the French sides play in the Challenge Cup. They’re important fixtures for the Elite sides.
What was it like playing with Paul Sironen?
It was great. He was a big name and we knew what a legend he was in Australia. Everybody had such respect for what he’d done in the game and he was a really nice guy too. We learned a lot off him and he did a lot for the club.
You had a brief taste of Super League in 2002, playing three games for Wakefield during the French off-season.
Yes, that’s right. They were struggling at the time but I played in an important win over London and scored a late try. It was my first experience of Super League and very exciting for me.
Villeneuve went on to dominate the French competition under Grant Doorey’s coaching. Were you therefore disappointed not to get a Super League franchise?
Yes, absolutely. As well as winning titles back in France, we’d got to a Challenge Cup quarter-final against Warrington in 2001 and were doing well against English sides in the Cup. We thought we should have got the franchise at the time because of how well we were doing. In the end, I suppose, the area hardly matched Perpignan as a tourist attraction and they got in instead. Myself and three others – Jamel Fakir, Laurent Frayssinous and Romain Gagliazzo – moved to UTC when they were accepted by Super League.
The club then had just over two years to prepare for Super League. Was that the right amount of time?
The structure and the administration of the club had to be right and we definitely needed a couple of years to do that. Steve Deakin was coaching the club back then, having arrived at the same time as we did and everything was geared up towards us playing in Super League. The RFL would come over to Perpignan to check on us and help us and, in the end, it was good to have that time to prepare because we needed it.
In 2004, France played very well against New Zealand and Australia. Did that show that the leading French players could compete at the highest level?
Yes, I think so. We nearly beat New Zealand, only losing near the end. Then against the Aussies, we were only a few points down with ten minutes left only for them to pull away a bit at the end.
In 2005, the year before the Dragons came into Super League, you almost beat Wigan in the Challenge Cup.
Yes, we came close. The conditions were terrible that night. We were really up for it because we would be playing in games like that every week the following year. If there’d been a video ref that night, we’d have probably won. They scored a couple of late tries to win the game but we knew we’d shown that we could compete with Super League clubs.
You then got your revenge in round one of Super League in 2006, in the Dragons’ first ever fixture.
One of my favourite career memories – it was a great night! The whole town was behind us and the stadium was full. People came from everywhere to watch us and to get the win was fantastic. It was difficult though, because Steve had coached us in the pre-season but then lost his job and we didn’t have a head coach for the game. David Waite was around but Matt Adamson and Paul Donkin did most of the coaching until Mick Potter took over.
What was Potter like?
We were very happy with the appointment and we won at Warrington in his first game which was a great start for him. He did a great job for us and he’s still doing it now over there. In the end, we were frustrated to finish last because we should have won some of the games that we lost but overall, we were pretty happy with our first year.
Did you enjoy playing with Stacey Jones?
Of course! It was like playing with Paul Sironen because a big star like that in your club lifts everybody and you learn so much from them. Stacey was so important to us at first.
What was behind your move to Harlequins?
It was a new challenge for me and after playing for Wakefield in 2002, I wanted to play for an English club again. Harlequins came in for me and my partner Lauren also works at the club.
Are you enjoying life in London?
Yes definitely. I played 26 games last year without actually starting but all teams have a hooker on the bench and you come on when the defence is tired. I still need to improve because I’ve only played hooker for a couple of years but I’m loving it here and can’t wait for the new season to unfold.
You played for France against Great Britain last year. Did you believe you could win when you took that first-half lead?
I don’t know. We had a few players from the Elite Championship in France who were in their off-season and didn’t quite have the fitness for a Test match, so we knew it would catch up with us. We also had quite a few injuries and the second half was hard. But that first half was very enjoyable and the national side is improving all the time. We can look at beating England this year, if the game is in France.
You’re now the only Frenchman at an English Super League club. Would you like to see more Frenchmen at the English clubs?
Yes because it would definitely benefit the national side and there are plenty of players available who are of the right standard. There are some really good players back home and a lot of players have shown with the Catalans that they can step up to Super League.
What are your hopes for the World Cup?
I think we can do well and we have a lot of potential. We’ve been playing well under John Monie and almost neat New Zealand last year. We competed all the way in that game. If we’re properly prepared then I think we can make the semi-finals.