There is one little genius from yesteryear who would never have made it past one match in the current commercialised game.
With bans on alcohol and cigarette sponsorship, modern player physical dimensions and the training regimes they are subjected to, this pocket-sized genius would have never been.
Weighing under 70kgs and standing 5’3”, he is still one of the smallest players to ever play international rugby league, something which he did for fourteen years.
He was Robert Aubert Puig.
In 1944 while playing for French club Carcassonne, aged 19, he was selected in the run-on side for the first time, however he shared the same surname as two more prominent players at the time, so the French newspapers intentionally reversed his surname so that it read Puig-Aubert.
And an International rugby league legend was born.
On many occasions through his career, Puig-Aubert would be seen smoking while playing. In a match against Wigan in 1947, while playing at fullback, he was catching the ball one-handed, while holding his thinly rolled cigarette in the other hand.
When the French toured Australia in 1951, the public were witness not just to his on-field smoking antics, but also his bewildering attitude towards defence, his amazing attacking flair and his unique goalkicking style which has never since been replicated.
Puig-Aubert avoided tackling as much as he humanly could. He knew it was a weakness of his game, but his justification for allowing players to score tries when he could have attempted a tackle on them was what amazed the Australian media and public most.
After one tour match in Australia, a reporter asked Puig-Aubert why it is that he doesn’t tackle.
Puig Aubert replied “There are twelve men in front of me who should have stopped him, that’s their job. I do everything else.”
He would let players score as a form of punishment to his defenders. As strange a tactic this appears, it seemed to have the desired affect, as the French sides in the 1940’s and 1950’s were regarded as one of the toughest test sides to beat and were clearly the greatest French Rugby league sides ever to grace the field.
Puig-Aubert was also a devout non-trainer. He loathed training and would regularly avoid attending. On the few occasions that he did appear, he was more interested in arguing with the coach than training.
Yet the most amazing and widely remembered oddities about this great player was his goalkicking. He had an unbelievable success rate at kicking goals. In some matches he would just place the ball flat on the ground, turn around, walk back without measuring a run-up, amble in and kick the ball soccer-style and it would frequently sail over the crossbar.
Henri Garcia recalls Puig Aubert’s first match at the SCG between France and Sydney in 1951:
“…the stunned crowd watched in amazement as the incredible Puig-Aubert teed
the ball up without even looking at the posts, turned towards his own line and,
after a short run-up, lazily booted it skyward between the uprights. What cheek!
What an affront to rugby etiquette…”
Keith Holman was known to have said that Puig-Aubert was the only player to make Clive Churchill look ordinary. Holman also said:
“One day at practice on the Sydney Cricket Ground I saw him do something I've
never seen before or since. He placed the ball where the corner post usually stands and
with a remarkable kick curved it around between the goal posts for a goal.”
Puig-Aubert broke the tour pointscoring record on the 1951 Australian tour, a record previously held by England’s legendary Jim Sullivan. He also kicked 18 goals from 18 attempts in the 3 tests against Australia on the 1951 tour, a record which still stands.
Upon the arrival back home after the successful jaunt to Australia, he was awarded France’s Champion of Champions title, the first time any footballer from any code had ever won the award.
Puig-Aubert retired from rugby league in 1960. He became a test selector for France in 1969, a job he held for the next decade.
In the 1980’s he was diagnosed with lung cancer, a direct result of his many years of chain smoking.
He passed away at his home in Carcassonne in 1994, aged 69.
In 2003, a statue of Puig-Aubert was unveiled at Stade Domec in Carcassonne.
The staue was taller and heavier than Puig-Aubert.
But it’s charm, showmanship and unparalleled extravagance pales in comparison to the one and only ‘Pippette.”