Laurent Lucchese: Super League’s Number One Player

The first name on Super League’s first-ever teamsheet was that of Laurent Lucchese, the Paris St Germain fullback in that wonderful opening-night victory over Sheffield Eagles in 1996.

He played in France for Tarn Sud and then for Huddersfield where he featured in a world-record victory, and also for Sheffield Eagles.

Lucchese played 18 times in Paris’s debut season, whilst simultaneously playing for Carcassonne – often turning out twice in one weekend. He went on to play for Villeneuve, Toulouse and Carcassonne again before retiring at 30. He won five caps for France.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

It’s pretty hard to answer this question because I’ve got two big and strong memories.

The first one was when we beat Leeds at Don Valley with Sheffield Eagles in 1995. Leeds had a full squad with Ellery Hanley, Garry Schofield, Kevin Iro, Alan Tait and Jim Fallon.

The second big moment in my career was my battle against blood poisoning in 1997. I had a month in hospital to kill the germ located on my knee, followed by three months of rehab every day, living at my physio’s house – Vincent Meunier. All the odds were against me with a suggestion that I’d never walk properly again. Personally, l was just focused on finishing the season with my team-mates at Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

After few months of hard work, l joined the team for the last two months of the comp. You can’t imagine how I felt running on the field again for my comeback. We just got beat in final against St Estève.

Tell us about your early Rugby League days.

I played with a club called Tarn Sud from four or five until I was 20. I played for France in the 1992 World Sevens in Sydney when I was 18. My dream was to become a professional, which is why I went to Huddersfield in 1993. Alex Murphy was in charge with Brendan Finn doing a lot of the coaching.

Les Coulter told me all about Alex and I read a lot about him. It was great to get advice from someone like him. I made my debut at Workington in the first game of the Division Two season. I wasn’t supposed to play, but Jason Laurence injured his hamstring, and I was picked at fullback. I knew about James Pickering in the Workington team. He was huge. He made a break, and I was one on one with him. I thought if I missed him and he scored I’d probably be sent back to France, so I jumped at his legs and stopped him but split my head open!

We had a good start to the season, but winning all the time can be dangerous and we didn’t handle it well. Maybe we thought it would be easy. A couple of defeats came along, and we found it hard to handle them. Confidence slipped away and we missed out on promotion. We weren’t strong enough mentally.

The following season you played in a then-record 142-4 win over Blackpool in the Regal Trophy.

George Fairbairn had taken over from Alex and brought in some very good players who loved to train. For the first ten or 15 minutes, it was a pretty hard game in attack and defence. Then we made a couple of breaks and it suddenly became too easy. Blackpool were struggling, but they were still trying hard.

Ian Thomas loved scoring, and so did Greg Austin. Those two were always in the right spot and their support play was incredible. Greg played like a fullback, not a centre, and just followed every player around the pitch. He ended up with nine tries.

Why did you move to Sheffield mid-season?

Fairbairn didn’t want me, so Glenn Knight, the assistant coach with the France national team, helped me get a trial at Sheffield Eagles, who were in Division One.

Les Coulter was disappointed to see me leave. I was still only 20, but I just wanted to play. I was supposed to go into the A-team, but Gary Hetherington knew I was a kicker, and I was soon in the first team. My debut was against Doncaster.

My second game was against Salford on Sky Sports and I had a nightmare. But Sheffield were good, and I really enjoyed playing alongside players like Lee Jackson, Ryan Sheridan, Paul Carr, Paul Broadbent, Daryl Powell and Keith Senior. It was a dream for me. I’d come from my local amateur club and within two years I was playing in the English top division. When I was there, I went to the World Sevens again and then won my first full cap in the European Championships.

Where did you go after Sheffield?

Gary offered me a two-year contract, but I did my knee in April and needed surgery. I also had to do one year in the army in France. Paris St Germain were building their team, so I chose to play for them, as well as for Carcassonne in the French league.

What are your memories of Super League’s opening night against Sheffield?

There was so much pressure on us, but it was good pressure. Everyone was behind us. The crowd was 17,000, which was unbelievable. It was such an important game, and we were so proud to be involved. We were so mentally focussed on winning and scored some unbelievable tries. Freddie Banquet made an interception and ran 35 metres to score in the corner. Arnaud Cervello scored an incredible 90-metre try.

Do you remember all your team-mates?

Yes. Pierre Chamorin the captain. He was very strong in attack and defence and could make a difference at any time. Patrick Entat was a great organiser at scrum-half with experience of playing in England. We barely knew anything about two of our forwards, Gregory Kacala and Darren Adams. They’d played rugby union for Grenoble, who were a big team. Greg was a great person. He was tall, strong and heavy, so we wondered how he would adapt, but he did well. Fabien Devecchi is now coaching Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

Vincent Wulf didn’t play that night, but he was an excellent player. Mikhail Piskunov and Vea Bloomfield left the club quite quickly – both have actually passed away, as has Didier Cabestany. I went to see Vea in 2017 in New Zealand. He had stomach pains but hadn’t been diagnosed when I saw him. When he did go hospital, they told him it was too late, and he died in 2018.

How did the Parisians take to you?

They loved it. We were introduced to the PSG soccer supporters during half-time of a big European game against Parma. They were very curious, and they loved the way both teams got together for a beer with the fans after the game. They were intrigued about the rules, but they loved the openness of the game. Even when we lost, they found it entertaining. There were some good times, not just the opening night. Had the club been in the south, it would have been a success, but Jacques Fouroux, the club president, wanted it in Paris for commercial and television reasons.

One of the reasons the team struggled was that several of you were playing local domestic matches and also Super League for PSG on the same weekend. Looking back, that’s crazy. You must have been exhausted.

Yes. The new season of the French league had begun in September 1995 and was due to run until May 1996. So by the time Super League started in March, we had had no break, we’d played right through the winter, and then we had to go straight into Super League with Paris. That meant throughout April and May, many of us did play twice in one weekend. That was too hard. You need three or four days of recovery. At least I was a back. It was frustrating because Paris would have won more games if things had been organised better.

Another problem was we all lived in the south. Some of us trained in Perpignan and some in Toulouse. We’d catch a plane to Paris or the UK two days before a game, then we had to come back and play for our French club. There was no structure.

It was amazing to be part of Paris St Germain, but when the defeats came regularly, we found it to too hard to deal with. It was a great experience, but we wasted so much energy on travelling and trying to recover from two games in one weekend.

Does it make you angry that the club was run so shambolically when it could have been a success?

I’m not angry, but it was a shame. Everyone was behind us. The players, officials and coaches all did their jobs. No one cheated. It was just so frustrating. We then had to wait ten years before Catalans Dragons came along. But PSG could have been in the top four or top six had it been run properly.

Why did you leave the club?

Well, I didn’t really! At the end of the season, they wanted to have just two French players with the rest foreigners. Peter Mulholland was now the coach and he told us to keep training with our French clubs. But the Australians and New Zealanders all knew each other, and it was harder for the French players to break into the side in 1997. I’m not criticising anyone because everyone tried hard to make Paris St Germain work, but it wasn’t to be. Catalans Dragons go well, and they have used a lot of foreigners too, but they have always had a structure, a solid base and lots of local players and supporters.

What did you do after PSG?

I did two years with Villeneuve-sur-Lot with players like Bloomfield, David Despin and Devecchi, and we had a very good team. Then I went to Toulouse for three years and won the French Championship in 2000. I finished my career in 2004 after three seasons in Carcassonne.

Two years after my surgery in 1995, I got blood poisoning and my knee was never quite the same, so when I got to 30, I knew I would finish there.

Now I am a personal trainer. I help people get fit and lose weight or gain strength for their sport. I offer Chinese traditional massage. I work on rehabs too and have helped people like Mickael Simon at the Dragons.

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.