Jason Baitieri wasn’t even born when his father Tas appeared on the cover of Rugby League Week in a photo taken at Moscow’s Red Square but the French forward is benefiting from the vision his pioneering dad had for the game more than 30 years ago.
Baitieri, a Parramatta junior who made his NRL debut for the Sydney Roosters in 2010, has just completed his ninth season with Catalans and in the past two years he has represented France at the 2017 World Cup, helped the French Super League club to a Challenge Cup victory at Wembley and played at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
“Camp Nou was probably the best rugby league experience I have had,” Baitieri said. “It topped Wembley just because our crowd was there - the Catalan people from the Catalan region who couldn’t go over to Wembley the year before.
“It was a shame that we didn’t get to meet Lionel Messi or some of the other players but the stadium was incredible. Football, or soccer, over there is in a league of its own and it was a really good experience for me. I loved it.”
After drawing a record regular season Super League crowd of 31,555 against Wigan, there is speculation Catalans could play Toronto Wolfpack at Camp Nou next year – a match-up Tas Baitieri could have only dreamed of when he visited Moscow in 1984 to lobby for a Russian team at the World University Games.
By 1992, a Russian club side, the Red Arrows, were was among the first international teams to play at the World Sevens in Sydney, along with Wigan, USA, France, Papua New Guinea, Oceania and New Zealand champions Wainuiomata.
Fast forward 27 years and Paris-born Jason Baitieri is playing for France in the inaugural Downer World Cup 9s at Bankwest Stadium.
“My mum is French so I was born over there and it is pretty funny how things work out,” Baitieri said. “Now I have been with the French team for 10 years and I have had an absolute ball, I live over there now and I play for Catalans.
“From a son’s point of view I am proud of my old man. He contributes a lot to rugby league, it is not a job for him, it is a passion and everyone who knows him knows how much he loves the game.
“Rugby league is everywhere and he was there from the start so to see how good the Pacific nations are going now and to see all the teams uniting and playing in the inaugural World Cup 9s at Bankwest Stadium is great.”
From a French perspective, the failure of the national team to win a match at the 2017 World Cup did not help the development of the game in France and the Nines sides contains many new faces.
“I think the pathway to getting more rugby league in France is through the national team,” Baitieri said. “If the national team succeeds, the other teams will get more recognition - the Catalans Dragons in Super League and Toulouse in the Championship.
“We really need this French team, and every French team, to perform because that is the way we are going to progress the game in France. We want to get more players and more kids joining the game so that is the most important thing. We have seen the difference it can make with the Pacific nations.”
The France squad for the World Cup 9s is a mixture of experience and youth, with Catalans and Toulouse each having five players and centre Hakim Miloudi playing for the Toronto team which won promotion to Super League earlier this month.
France will be keen to avenge their World Cup defeat to Lebanon, while they are also in the same pool as England and Wales.
“It is a young team and what is good about this team is that we all know each other, we are all French-born and we are a tight-knit group so it will be interesting to see how we go,” Baitieri said.
For ticket and travel packages for the Downer Rugby League World Cup 9s Sydney 2019, head to nrl.com/tickets.