JOSH DRINKWATER will leave Catalans Dragons at the end of the season after a six-month “rollercoaster ride” in France.
The Dragons called for international rescue in April after their worst ever start to a Super League season - coach Steve McNamara asking Drinkwater to fill the breach after scrum-half Luke Walsh was forced to retire through injury.
Since his arrival on a half-season deal the Catalans have clawed their way from bottom of the table to Super League top eight safety. And the crowning glory of the season came last month with the historic Challenge Cup win at Wembley.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Drinkwater. “It’s been successful and winning the Challenge Cup has been the highlight of my career so far.
“But I don’t think I’ll be staying here, to be honest. For one reason or another things haven’t worked out so I’ll be moving on.”
The Dragons have agreed terms with St Helens and former Wigan scrum-half Matty Smith for next season and Sam Tomkins has already agreed to move to Perpignan, creating congestion among the backs at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
It is understood the club will also be adding a winger to replace Fouad Yaha (who is leaving to join rugby union) and a prop-forward following the decision by Louis Anderson to leave at the end of the season.
The decision not to include Drinkwater next year will surprise some who had seen him as the catalyst for the club’s revival in 2018.
Asked whether or not he will be staying in Super League he said: “I’m not too fussed, my manager will sort all that out. I’d be happy either way, moving over to England in Super League or back to Australia to have a shot at the NRL.
“I just want to finish these last three weeks on a good note and whatever happens after that happens I guess.”
Drinkwater said he’d been impressed with the standard of the game this season, especially at the top level.
“I’ve enjoyed these last few months, I’ve been involved in some great games. The top four in Super League could definitely compete in the NRL. The only difference is the bottom half of Super League would find it difficult.
“I’d be very happy to continue in Super League, I’ve lived in England before so that wouldn’t be a problem.
“Rugby League is a rollercoaster. Last year I thought I’d be playing for Leigh for three years and the Million Pound Game put paid to that.
“Next thing I’m at Catalans and winning the Challenge Cup final so I’m not too fussed about the immediate future. It will sort itself out so I’m not getting stressed about it.
“Rugby League is a business and I understand that so whatever happens, happens.”
the Catalans Dragons' coach
STEVE BRADY takes a look at a surreal season for
McNamara's work of art...
South-west France is an area famously frequented by surrealists such as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Steve McNamara.
Those first two names are world famous painters whose unique vision and often bizarre interpretations of reality have produced some of history’s greatest works of art. The third is a Rugby League coach from Hull.
McNamara’s “oeuvre” comes in the shape of an oval ball and thirteen players, but his latest work has stunned the world with its powerful and passionate portrayal of “sang et or” (blood and gold) on a lush green background with a final flourish of silver.
“It’s all a bit surreal,” said the Catalans Dragons coach after seeing his team win the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. “I can’t completely sum it up…”
That’s the thing with surrealism, it’s difficult to explain. Who could possibly make sense of a Catalan conundrum which began with the worst ever start to a season and ended with the club’s first ever trophy?
All fine artists (and coaches) start with great expectations but the path to success can occasionally veer off into dark periods of desolation and despair. In some cases this adds depth and perception to the brilliance of their work but it very often leads to the sack.
It was a blank canvas for McNamara when he assembled his new team in January - made up from desperate survivors of last year’s Million Pound game but generously sprinkled with expensive new additions including Papua New Guinea skipper David Mead and Wigan’s talismanic hooker Michael McIlorum.
This season’s Catalans were a colourful mix of Tongans, Fijians, Papuans, Aussies, Kiwis, English and French - a broad palette of players, many of whom had just returned from the World Cup in Australia.
With very short preparation time, McNamara went to work. His project took its first painful twist when he lost half of the team to a frozen plastic pitch at Widnes in round one. Scrum-half Luke Walsh never fully recovered from an ankle injury which ultimately led to his retirement from the game.
The losses piled up on the pitch and we in the media were preparing for La Madame Guillotine to join us in post-match press conferences in Perpignan. The usual banalities appeared on English (anti)social media: “McBanana” this and “Crapalans” that but over here it was different.
The club had bought into McNamara’s long-term vision and, breaking with their fiery Latin shoot-first tactics of yesteryear, they stuck with their man.
More importantly, the supporters stuck with their man. Fans in the passion-pot Guasch Stand at the Gilbert Brutus seemed to empathise with the dignity and strength of their coach. Of course, their screams of ‘Putain’ and ‘Merdre’ were still de rigeur for referees or any Anglais who didn’t happen to be playing for their team - but Mac drew no flak.
Robert Mourgue, 87-years-old and the Dragons’ most loyal supporter, told me at the time: “Il est un homme bon…” he is a good man.
The French resistance to a change of coach held firm yet there was more pain to follow with defeat after defeat. Something had to give…
The turning point came at the end of April when the club brought Josh Drinkwater back to Super League from a building site in Australia. Before jet-lag and back-ache had worn off McNamara put him straight into the team to face Hull at home. The Dragons won it 25-24 with a last-gasp Tony Gigot drop-goal and they embarked upon a thrilling run to secure top eight safety against all odds.
The crowning glory of their revival came in the double-header Challenge Cup semi-final when they knocked the stuffing out of St Helens and bumped them out of the competition at Bolton.
McNamara said then that the adversity his team had suffered earlier in the season was paying dividends: “Try seeing how close your group is when you’ve two wins from eleven. That’s when you find out if it’s splintered or not.”
For their next trick, their piéce de résistance, they splintered the glass ceiling of an overseas side winning a major Rugby Football League competition. Amid scenes of dizzy jubilation and a flurry of Catalonian flags, the Dragons soared to their zenith by beating Warrington Wolves 20-14.
McNamara can be excused for feeling a sense of déja vu during the game, his previous trip to Wembley was as England coach for the 2013 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. The Kiwis were behind until the very closing moments of the match.
“For that last five minutes against Warrington,” he said, “I was sat thinking that clock’s going to get down to 21 seconds and Shaun Johnson is going to jump out the other side and score a try!”
Surreal indeed… back in the real world the Wolves were at the door, piling on pressure in the second half, could it be double Wembley heartbreak for McNamara?
There is a line in the Catalan anthem Els Segadors which is sung before all matches in Perpignan which reads “defensors de la terra” – defenders of the land. The Dragons stuck to the lyrics and tackled their way to the trophy with a defensive display worth singing about.
The final hooter was drowned out by a chorus of “Catalans, allez allez allez” and history was made.
The thousands of supporters who couldn’t travel to Wembley were rewarded with a return of the team to Perpignan in the early hours of Sunday morning where the party started at the airport and hasn’t yet fully ended.
Some hangovers are beginning to clear but there is still a dizziness - a surreal feeling over here - at the events of the past six months.
Trying to make sense of it all is Dragons’ chairman Bernard Guasch. The “meat magnate” of the region is a hard-nosed businessman with a soft spot for a game that he says: “Has given so much to me and my family.”
He has no time to stand and stare at the surreal picture of recent events - he is ensuring that the legacy of this historic cup win will boost Rugby League in France.
Already, the leader of the Catalan Government has visited the Stade Gilbert Brutus to celebrate the cup triumph and Guasch will parade the trophy before 100,000 football fans when Barcelona host Girona in the Catalan derby at Camp Nou on September 23rd.
“Winning the cup is just the beginning for us,” said the President. “It is a new start for this club. I hope that among the millions who have seen the cup final on TV there will be children who now dream of becoming a Catalans Dragons player.
“We have shown that anything is possible, and that French Rugby League can stand strong. We had nine French players in our cup final side and it is my ambition to bring more through the ranks. The future is French.”
In charge of this French renaissance next season will be an Englishman whose transition from favourite for le chop to potential coach of the year has been a surreal work of art.
JOSH'S GERMAN DREAM
Dragons' scrum-half Drinkwater sets his targets on the French RL World Cup 2025
JOSH DRINKWATER and his NRL star brother Scott will spearhead a German invasion of the Rugby League World Cup in France (writes STEVE BRADY).
The 31-year-old Catalans Dragons scrum-half is of German descent and he is keen to establish a national squad for the 2025 tournament.
He told Catalan Media, “I’ve already committed to playing for Germany and next year my younger brother (24-year-old Scott Drinkwater who plays full-back or stand-off for NRL side North Queensland Cowboys) and I are going to try and help them qualify for 2025.”
The Dragons’ Australian number seven has returned to his roots in Europe and is loving every minute of his time in France.
He said, “My grandad is German, he moved to Australia during the war, so we’ve got full heritage to be part of a national side.
“I’m very lucky to have that dual citizenship and the German passport has been a real help while playing here in Europe.
“We’re going to try and get Germany into the Rugby League World Cup here in France in 2025.
“That’s what I’d really like but if that doesn’t happen I might put my hand up for the French team. Trouble is, there are so many good young French kids coming through I probably wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Drinkwater is in his fourth pre-season for Catalans and is linking up with his second high profile NRL half-back after Mitchell Pearce replaced James Maloney in the number six jersey at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
He said, “It’s pretty incredible that I’ve had a couple of years alongside Jimmy and now Mitch is here.
“I grew up watching those two boys coming through the ranks and it’s really strange that I got the chance to play alongside both of them here in France.
“They bring bags of experience and it’s a pleasure to be in the same team as them.
“Obviously me and Jimmy pulled up one short in the Grand Final last year so the plan is for me and Mitch to go one further this time around.”
Drinkwater said there was a positive mood in the Catalans camp since the arrival of three new fellow Aussie recruits in Pearce, Dylan Napa and Tyrone May.
He added, “We’ve had a couple of boys out and some new ones in and they’ve fitted in immediately and it seems like we’ve started again where we left off which is a good sign.
“The restart to training has gone smoothly, as hard as ever, but we’re pretty solid with a couple of weeks to go now.
“Early on we just have to go back and start again. What we did so well early in the season last year was work hard for each other.
“There are little things that no-one else sees but we pick up on when we get back and analyse the match video and look at the stats. That extra bit of effort for your team-mate was the real difference for us.
“We need to start like that from the very first game. If you can start to build some early momentum by winning games it becomes a habit.
“You learn how to win the tough games, the really close games, but it’s no good just trying to repeat last season.
“We have to be better if we’re going to beat Saints, and all of the other clubs who have recruited well for this year.
“It’s a long season, we’re going to need luck with injuries like everyone else, and the biggest thing is not to rely on what we did last year.
“Everybody starts on zero and we all get on the rollercoaster at the same time.”
Drinkwater is looking forward to Saturday’s pre-season warm-up against fellow French side Toulouse Olympique and he hopes it will be the beginning of a long sporting relationship between the two clubs.
He said, “I can’t wait, I’ve played against Toulouse in trial games before but the fact that they are in Super League now is great for France and good for us too.
“We’ve missed out on the derbies that most of the English clubs have always had but now we can have a real rivalry which will bring out the best in both teams and I’m sure the fans will become very passionate about it very quickly.“It’s always very noisy at the Brutus but mix that with a load of Toulouse supporters and it’s going to be very special.
“I know a few of the boys at Toulouse and I can’t wait to play against them and see what the French fans there are all about.”
He may be of German descent but the future is French for Drinkwater and he is hoping to continue his career in Perpignan beyond his current two year contract.
He said , “I love it here, I’ve had a fair few clubs in my career and this is definitely the club I love the most and the place I feel most at home.
“When you’ve got such a strong connection with the players, coaches and staff at the club it obviously gives you that passion you need on the pitch.
“I’ve got this season and the next one in my current contract but I’ve got no plans to leave the club after that.
“I’ve got a good relationship with Steve, Bernard, Channy and everyone at the club and if they want me to stay I will definitely hang around.
“But I’m fully aware that things don’t always work out the way you want and I understand that Rugby League is a business and it’s no place for sentiment or holding grudges.
“Things change every day and I’ll just play it by ear.”
"We've missed out on the derbies that most of the English clubs have always had but now we can have a real rivalry..."
TONY GIGOT’S tale of two cities continues this year with his return to Super League in his new-found home of Toulouse (writes STEVE BRADY).
The 31-year-old French international made his name in Perpignan with Catalans Dragons, reaching a career-defining Lance Todd trophy award for his brilliant performance in the 2018 Challenge Cup Final.
But it is in another French city where Gigot hopes to take his career to another level on what he describes as a challenge “to make history.”
Gigot has linked up once more with former Dragons team-mates Lucas Albert, Romain Navarette, Eloi Pelissier and Rémi Casty (assistant coach) on a mission to establish the 13-a-side code as a force once more in France’s fourth largest city.
He told Catalan Media: “It’s really nice to link up again with your former team-mates in a brand-new environment.
“We’re all pretty happy to be here helping to make history for another French club.”
There may be a few familiar faces at training but that’s where the similarities end for Gigot, as he explained: “The two clubs and the two cities of Perpignan and Toulouse couldn’t be more different.
“The Catalan people are so very passionate about everything, the culture is one of fierce pride and it shows in everything they do.
“Whereas in Toulouse it is much more French and while they love their footy it is a different kind of support, they are a different style of people.
“When we saw 10,000 people turn up for a championship game at the end of the season, after spending so much time without a home game, it shows just how much the people of Toulouse love their rugby.”
Avignon-born Gigot has moved to live in Toulouse and he has found it easy to settle into the city’s cosmopolitan lifestyle.
“It’s a massive city and it is great for French Rugby League that Toulouse are in Super League, it offers so much potential for others to follow.
“It reminds me of Leeds in the UK, a city with lots of students and all of the good things that come with the university environment.
“There’s a friendly café society feel about Toulouse, it’s a serious city but it knows how to have fun.
“It’s a beautiful city with lots of history and lots to do in town, I would encourage as many Super League supporters as possible to give it a try.”
Gigot shrugs off suggestions that the Olympians will struggle to survive in Super League without further squad strengthening.
He said, “We have already shown what we can do for an entire season, and when the pressure is on in the big games.
“The club has added some real quality players over the past few seasons and they already had some great players and it’s a really strong playing group.”“We are working very hard on our pre-season, we’ve got a few players who haven’t played Super League so it is important that the senior players help out.
“But it’s going good and we’re all pulling together.
Gigot is fully aware of the challenge ahead for Olympique to convince French supporters to buy into Rugby League once more in the city but the support of rugby union giants Stade Toulousain (who groundshare at Stade Ernest Wallon) has given him confidence that the project will succeed.
He said, “Rugby union is the number one sport in the city and the people are crazy for it.
“I have been to watch Stade Toulousain a few times and the atmosphere here at the stadium is incredible.
“If we can recreate some of that with Rugby League we will do very well.
“We have trained with them and next to them many times and we can help each other improve. It’s so good to see that they are keen to help us grow as a club.”
Gigot is still keen to grow as a player and is enjoying learning new things from coach Sylvain Houles, and it is another French coach he is hoping to impress this season.
He said, “My main objective this year is to help Toulouse in Super League but after that I would love to be involved with the World Cup in England.
“I know coach Laurent Frayssinous and he has a difficult job because of Covid to get the right amount of preparation in but he lets all of the French players know exactly what they need to do to be a part of the national squad.
“He’s got everyone pulling in the same direction which is the most important thing.
“We are confident that we can compete at international level but we need to start showing it on the pitch.
“We have got some great young players coming through and it’s up to me, Ben Garcia, Julian Bousquet and other senior players to show them the way.
“It is the first time I have seen this promising young generation coming forward at the same time.
“Arthur Mourgue and Justin Sangaré are the tip of the iceberg, so much great coaching has gone into young French players at Catalans and now Toulouse that the future looks very bright, especially with a French World Cup now on the horizon.”
Many of those young players first picked up a Rugby League ball in Gigot’s hometown of Avignon which has been a rich source of talent for the French game.
Gigot added, “Avignon is a great club that seems to keep producing top quality Rugby League players, I don’t know what it is about that part of France.
“It seems that the kids there dream more of a future in the sport than other towns and cities but it must give Avignon a lot of pride to see so many of their kids go on to play Super League.”
A huge football fan, Gigot’s trips with Ben Garcia and Julian Bousquet to watch his beloved Marseille FC at the Orange Velodrome have been curtailed by his move to Toulouse but he hopes to return there as a Rugby League player in the future.
He said, “We haven’t been together for a while, I went to the last Classico (Marseille v PSG) and it is the best football club in the world.
“Honestly, the atmosphere is mad crazy with the fans singing for 90 minutes. It’s been a bit too crazy recently and things might have gone too far but if you love football you will love Marseille, it’s awesome.
“I’ve heard that Catalans are talking about taking a Super League game to Marseille and that would be fantastic.
“It would make people all over France sit up and learn some more about Rugby League. For me, it’s the best sporting city in France.
“I said before, the boys from Avignon love to dream and it would be a dream for me to play in a Toulouse-Catalans derby at Marseille.”
On a lighter note, Gigot’s switch from the mean streets of Perpignan to the cultured cobbles of metropolitan Toulouse will not have any effect on the most famous French moustache in Rugby League.
Asked whether he is now considering a switch from his trim Gigot trademark tash into a handlebar version like Toulouse team-mate Mathieu Jussaume, he said, “definitely not!”
Gigot added, “No, no, this is the real moustache, I will let Matthieu do his thing but this is the real French one.
“Every time Mathieu walks in the streets of Toulouse people stop to take his photo because his moustache is so impressive.
“I might try to fine tune mine this year but I will never go the full Mathieu.”
Toulouse's G-Man is hoping to make more history at Stade
Dragons coach believes French Super League clash will be up there with the greats
MAC'S DERBY DREAMS
CATALANS’ COACH Steve McNamara wants the brand new French Super League derby to be up there with the great rivalries of the game (writes STEVE BRADY).
The Dragons take on newly-promoted Toulouse Olympique in a pre-season trial match at Stade Gilbert Brutus on Saturday and while it is billed as a ‘friendly’ McNamara hopes it will eventually turn into a fierce contest to rival Wigan-St Helens or his hometown Hull’s passionate cross-city clash.
He told Catalan Media, “There is a strong bond between the clubs but you can sense a real rivalry beginning to form.
“It’s got the potential to be up there with the big derbies in Rugby League, and at the same time it’s a virtual Test trial for French selectors.
“Nearly all of the French national side, apart from a couple of others, will come from these two teams so it’s more than just a game.
“It’s almost a State of Origin game for France and I hope it develops into a fierce competitive series of games in the future.
“We’ve played each other many times in pre-season trial games but we all know that in a couple of months it will be on for real, for two Super League points.
“It’s certainly creating a lot of news and excitement down here and it’s something that can only benefit the game.”
French government crowd restrictions of 5,000 supporters are still in force for Saturday but the Covid control rules will be lifted on February 2nd allowing maximum attendances at sporting venues in France and McNamara hopes the Toulouse-Perpignan derby will soon be played in front of full houses.
He said, “The lifting of restrictions on attendances in France is such a boost for the clubs.
“We saw last season what an atmosphere can be created with a full stadium and the players really enjoy performing in front of a full house.
“But first and foremost it’s great news for the clubs financially. It’s been tough for everyone over the last couple of years and the latest government announcements seem to be heading in a positive direction thankfully.”
Restrictions on non-vaccinated players in France have been a challenge for both Toulouse and Catalans but last week the Dragons reported a 100 per cent fully-vaccinated squad and staff, which was a huge relief for McNamara.
“He’s only been here a week but we’ve seen straight away in training his ability to play in practically any position and do it with ease. He’s a real cool character and he understands the game inside out.”
Exactly where May will fit into McNamara’s starting 17 against St Helens in round one of Super League on February 10th remains to be seen but the Catalans’ coach is enjoying the selection dilemma.
“We’ve got a strong squad, I went to see a few of our younger members play for the reserves against St Gaudens in Elite One (St Esteve XIII Catalan won 52-0) on Saturday and it was a good run-out for them.
“Not all of them will feature against Toulouse in this week’s friendly but I’ve seen enough to know that they are ready for the challenge ahead.
“I won’t be sure of our starting 17 against St Helens until after Saturday’s game and the following couple of weeks, but as a coach it is a good problem to have.”
Not-so-good a problem was the news this week that young French international Arthur Mourgue faces up to three months out of action after hospital scans revealed ankle ligament damage following and injury at training last week.
The Dragons’ utility back earned raved reviews last season with a string of match-winning performances for Catalans.
He added, “Everybody is of course allowed to make their own decision on this matter and as the coach of the team I’m obviously really happy that everyone has chosen to do it and make themselves available for selection.
“You’ve also got to respect other people’s choices in life and some people have decided strongly that they don’t want the vaccination.
“The problem in France is that you simply cannot play at the moment if you haven’t had the jab and you need fairly strong principles to give that up.
“You have to respect everyone’s personal decision on that but as coach of a team it is a relief that we won’t have any selection difficulties on this issue.”
The Catalans coach, who has just signed a contract extension keeping him at Stade Gilbert Brutus until the end of 2024, said there was a good mood in the playing group following the arrival of three signings from Australia.
He said, “Our new players have been great, they have slotted in and added something positive to our pre-season.
“Mitchell Pearce and Dylan Napa are probably a little better known and it was expected that they would bring knowledge and experience to the squad.
“But Tyrone May has really impressed everyone with his depth of knowledge of the game. He is a very intelligent Rugby League player and a real studier of the game.
THE EVER-CHANGING effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have seen most clubs’ preparations for the new season torn up and re-written on a daily basis but nowhere has the impact been greater felt than at Toulouse Olympique.
What should have been a period of joyous anticipation of an historic debut season in Super League has been turned into a nightmare of ever-changing legislation from the UK and French governments.
Differences in travel restrictions, attendance levels and rules on quarantine and vaccinations have threatened to derail the French club’s first season in the top flight before it even begins.
At the heart of all of this turbulence is Toulouse Olympique’s Chief Executive Cedric Garcia who took time from spinning plates to speak to Catalan Media’s Steve Brady.
SB: Cedric, thanks for finding the time to speak to us, you must be very busy at the moment?
CG: “We are used to be being busy, and the problems we are dealing with now are the same ones we have been dealing with for the past two years so we are handling things as best as we can.
“It’s the uncertainty that makes it so much more difficult. When you know where you are going and what you need to do you have everything in your control and you work as hard as you can to reach your targets.
“The biggest problem we have is that we do something then the rules change and we have to do it all again and be aware that things are likely to change again.”
SB: Is there any sign of an end to the current predicament?
CG: “Like everybody else we are hoping that this is the last big wave of infections with the pandemic so once it passes we can look at the season with more certainty.
“We’re all crossing our fingers that things will ease. I try to stay optimistic and positive and I can see two good signs about the current situation with the pandemic.
“The first thing is that the UK and France are pretty much at the same stage of the virus. If one was behind the other it could mean major problems with travel regulations.
“The second thing is that the number of cases in France and the UK has risen so sharply in a short space of time, hopefully they will drop at the same rate.
“It’s a difficult and bitter truth to admit but it seems a good thing that so many people have caught the latest version so quickly, especially the fact that it seems the symptoms are not as severe and not as many people are going to hospital.
“The speed of the recent rise in figures makes me optimistic that we can move on to the next chapter very soon.”
SB: How are you trying to deal with such a difficult situation?
CG: “We met last week with Catalans Dragons, the RFL and Super League and although the French Federation could not attend it is important to stress that they are right in the middle of talks with the French government’s Ministry of Sport.
“We are all working together to gather the most up-to-date information we can to anticipate what could happen within the next month.
“Our season starts in five weeks’ time and in terms of Covid that is a very long time. The visibility of both governments is one to two weeks maximum so everything could change dramatically before Super League begins.
“We have good contacts with the French Ministry of Sport, with our friends in rugby union, and I think we have access to the maximum of live information which helps us try to anticipate things.
“It’s difficult for everyone, but if we can take something positive out of this it is that we are all working together and everybody is bringing as much information as possible to the table and sharing with the other parties.”
SB: Have you sought assistance from external sources?
CG: “Here at Toulouse we have good relations with the EPCR which runs the European Champions Cup for rugby union. They have two rounds coming up on the 15th and 22nd of January and this will be a good indication of where we all stand.
“I am meeting regularly with the CEO of Stade Toulousain (French rugby union champions who share Stade Ernest Wallon with T.O.) and he keeps me up to date with everything EPCR.
“We are engaging in dialogue with the Ministries on both sides of the Channel with a view to providing all of the exemptions we will need to be able to complete the season.
“We’re dealing with it.”
SB: How are you attracting new supporters in the face of current restrictions?
CG: “Of course, all of the uncertainty has affected our season-ticket sales because people are not sure how many games they will be able to see. We started our sales campaign at the end of October with special rates and we were going well until the restrictions returned and slowed everything down.
“We had to cancel two of our sponsors’ events because of the latest legislation restricting assemblies so it’s tough at the moment.
“We were really on a good roll but the latest developments pretty much froze everything.
“All we can hope for is that in a couple of weeks we will have brighter news and some positivity will return and then we will push forward with season ticket sales right up to the start of the campaign.”
SB: Will your focus now be on week-to-week promotion of fixtures?
CG: “We have already invested time and money into the promotion of individual games but the rule at the moment is 5,000-maximum supporters for games, with no bars or refreshment facilities, so it is extremely difficult.
“We sure hope that by the 12th of February things will have eased and we will have better conditions to play and celebrate the historic first-ever game of Super League for Toulouse Olympique.
“It is huge for us but we are a bit tied right now.”
SB: If the current restrictions remain, are home fixtures viable financially?
CG: “I cannot lie, if we were to put our first game on tomorrow under the current restraints, it wouldn’t be the best situation.
“Just imagine your first game in history of Super League and you can only have 5,000 supporters with no bars and everything else that makes matchday such a special event. It would be very sad.
“But we have always faced challenges the same way: there are things we can control and things we can’t. We just get on with it.
“If it is the case that the rules haven’t changed by the 12th of February, we will deal with it.
“Maybe I am guilty of being too positive or optimistic but I am pretty sure that that will not be the case.”
SB: How are negotiations going for increased television coverage of Super League games in France?
CG: “I am very limited in what I can say because everything is quite rightly confidential in such negotiations but I can tell you two things.
“First of all, the real positive thing is that Toulouse Olympique, Catalans Dragons and the French Federation, with the support of Super League, are working together with a common strategy and a common goal.
“At this stage I cannot give you any names of any TV channels but things are moving forward and we sure hope that we can get something before the start of the season.
“I have nothing concrete now but we are all seeking a common goal.”
SB: We haven’t yet seen the T.O. playing kit for SL 2022, is there a problem?
CG: “We’ve been struggling a little with the release of our kit for 2022 and I would love to give you a date but I am worried that we may not meet that deadline.
“We hope we can release it in the next two weeks is all I can say. It’s a complicated situation with our promotion to Super League and keeping our valued sponsors happy but added to this is that our kit suppliers have been massively impacted by Covid.
“They have their factories in Asia and it would have been impossible to transport the kit here under the current rules so they had to source a factory in Europe which has also delayed our plans.
“We are late and I am not happy about that but it is what it is this year, and next year will be better.”
SB: Will you stick to the unique floral pattern of recent seasons?
CG: “I can exclusively reveal that there won’t be any flowers on the kit for 2022 in case anybody was wondering. But you can expect something different is all I can say, that’s what we do here.”
SB: Beyond the coming season, what are the plans for Toulouse Olympique?
CG: “It’s always been my chairman (Bernard Sarrazain)’s objective to work for this club but also for Rugby League in general.
“We won’t change that, we like to get together with people, there is a French expression which translates into English as ‘Alone, you go faster, but together you go further’.
“We need to change the dimension of Rugby League in France.
“We have got a fantastic opportunity with ourselves coming up into Super League and hopefully the Rugby League World Cup being held here in 2025.
“If we can seize those two opportunities I am sure that the entire sport can go into another dimension.
“If we miss these chances, I don’t know what will happen after that. Maybe we would need new directors, new leadership.
“But we have got in front of us some massive prospects and if we are able to seize them we need to be all together.
“I have just had a meeting with the regional council of the French Federation and we will continue to work on the ‘Club Amis’ which is a partnership with other French clubs.
“We have linked up with all of the clubs in the Haut Garonne and we will try to widen it to Midi Pyrénées and all of these clubs will be invited here to Stade Ernest Wallon for rugby schools and allowing young players to become ball-boys.
“It is only by pulling together will we get through this Covid storm and we will be much better for it on the other side.”
"I can exclusively reveal that there won’t be any flowers on the kit for 2022 in case anybody was wondering..."
Toulouse Olympique Chief Executive Cedric Garcia (above)
Super League's new boys Toulouse face a new mountain every day but they are up for the fight
LET'S GO SAYS JONNO!
Toulouse skipper Ford's "expectation" that Super League's new boys are up for the challenge
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE’S modest recruitment drive for their debut season in Super League has left many pundits predicting a swift return to the championship for the top-flight debutants (writes STEVE BRADY).
Coach Sylvain Houles has drafted in James Cunningham, Matty Russell, Chris Hankinson and Gadwin Springer to complete his 27-man squad – hardly the headline signings made by fellow French club Catalans Dragons when they made their Super League debut in 2006 with a side bristling with big name NRL stars.
And while Houles is happy with his new signings he admits “It has been difficult to recruit more of the right players for us,” since the club gained promotion in October, leaving bookmakers offering short odds on relegation prospects for the Olympians.
While this speculation may be disrespectful to the new arrivals at Stade Ernest Wallon, all of whom have Super League experience, it is adding fuel to the fire of ambition in south-west France.
“That’s for other people to talk about,” said Toulouse captain Johnathon Ford.
“It doesn’t do us any harm, if anything it’s an added incentive to do well, not that we need one.”
At 6’4” Ford stands out at scrum-half on the pitch for TO but it is in the dressing room and training ground where his imposing presence is most felt.
An Australian of Tongan and Irish descent, 32-year-old “Jonno” (as he is known to everyone at the club) is in his tenth season for Toulouse since switching from Sydney Roosters in 2011.
Nobody is better placed to assess the club’s prospects in 2022 and Ford is full of confidence.
“This pre-season might feel different because we’re moving up to Super League but there is still that sense of confidence in our own abilities,” he told Catalan Media.
“It’s not so much confidence, because you take a look around the dressing room and there’s plenty of that.
“It’s more an expectation, you set yourself targets and you expect to achieve them and anything less than that and you are doing yourself a disservice.
“If you’re full of worry and doubt than that’s all you will get. You need to have confidence in yourself and your team-mates but the most important thing is expectation.
“Of course you have to train hard, get the reps under your belt and listen to the coaches, then the confidence is there and we all believe we can be successful in Super League.
“The level of expectation within the group has increased massively. Bringing in Joseph Paulo and Dominic Peyroux from Saints last year seemed to bring about a new understanding within the group of what we are really capable of.
“There’s a few of the guys who’ve been with us from the start and they’ve always had that drive but the gradual addition of quality and experience has changed the vibe entirely and we are evolving for the better.
“No matter what people say, we will be competitive next season, because it’s what we expect of ourselves.
“We’ve always been a confident and ambitious club and we’ve backed it up on the pitch, sometimes against massive odds.”
“We’re obviously facing massive challenges but that’s what we do. For me, personally, that’s how I live my life, I try to continue to evolve and improve in every aspect. I’m always searching for a better way to do everything, finding those tiny incremental improvements, be a better bloke, a better person, a better trainer, father, husband, all of those things add up.”
Ford said the new signings had settled in quickly to the playing group and the established players were working hard to help them adjust to life in France.
He added, “It’s good to have the new guys in the squad. It’s not a problem for Gadwin of course but James, Matty and Chris will need some guidance as you bed into a new life in a new country.
“You can’t just say here is this new culture and lifestyle, it takes time to absorb everything.
“What we try to tell them is that we have our own identity and entity as a club and make them feel a part of it immediately.
“Our motto is to take the best out of everything and that’s easy to buy into.
“Gadwin was in the Centre Formation (TO’s junior recruitment group) when I first got here, he’d joined us from Villeneuve, so he knows what we’re all about.
“But it’s brand new to the others and they seem to be handling it well so far.
“It’s especially important when you’ve got players who are away from their families. The new boys seem to have a good sense of humour and have already brought some vitality of their own into the squad.”
“It’s crucial that the playing group is a happy environment. You can get caught up sometimes in the serious stuff and be hard on yourself.
“If you can get everybody smiling then it’s much easier to assimilate into the new culture and begin to learn new skills.”
Ford agreed that it would be beneficial for Toulouse to make a winning start to their first season in Super League but said their opening fixtures against Huddersfield (H) and Salford (A) would not define their season.
He added, “Two points is two points, so you will take them every time, no matter what stage of the season so it’s no more important to get early wins than mid-season or right at the end.
“Again, it’s about expectation, if we go into every game with expectation based upon the hard work and practise we have been doing as a group we won’t come to any harm.
“And at the same time we have to appreciate where we are.
“I’m looking forward to playing at every venue, I’ve been to a few of the grounds before but it’s the fans I’m looking forward to most.
“There’s always a good turn-out at Super League games and they do like their singing and chanting.
“All players like that atmosphere of the big games when the crowd gets behind you, or even goes against you, that’s the time when you really enjoy your footy because everybody’s having a good time.”
Captain Johnathon Ford (above) and Coach Sylvain Houles (below) are confident Toulouse Olympique will be competitive in Super League 2022
SAM TOMKINS - Steve Prescott Man Of Steel in 2021, his incredible resurgence and return to the top of the game nine years after first winning the award as a coltish young sensation at Wigan Warriors - he was the story of last season, a story which ran until the final moments of THAT Grand Final when he was penalised in the closing stages and dropped to his knees in frustration and agony as the hooter blew.
It was a whirlwind season, even for a player who has never been far from the headlines, full of incredible match-winning performances and a late-season injury drama which almost cost him a place at Old Trafford.
After such a demanding year, you would think Tomkins would now be on a beach in the Indian Ocean, or walking his dogs in the hills of the Pyrénées, but not a bit of it.
Catalan Media’s STEVE BRADY caught up with Monsieur Tomkins at a wet and windy training session at Cabestany near Perpignan, stretching those famous tattoos and preparing for another season ahead.
SB: Sam, do you ever tire of pre-season, will you ever be tempted to do a James Maloney and step down a level?
ST: “No chance, I’m back to my normality now, we’ve all had a good seven weeks off, I’ve spent a lot of time with family and I feel fully refreshed.
“I’m nowhere near ready to do a Jimmy Maloney, I don’t find this year any harder than any other pre-season. You get accustomed to them, you know what to expect and they never fail to deliver.
“You work as hard as you possibly can, get home and sleep a lot.”
SB: How do you feel, have you recovered from the injury that almost cost you a place at Old Trafford?
ST: “I didn’t do any more damage to the knee by playing in the Grand Final, I’m back to running now but I did need six or seven weeks of rest.
“It’s as good as 100 per cent now and thankfully there wasn’t any more damage caused by playing in the final.”
SB: Are there any mental scars from the final? I don’t think I have ever seen you as angry or frustrated as you were in those closing stages, especially when that penalty at the play the ball was given against you.
ST: “I’m over that, it’s a while ago now.
“It’s difficult when you get a decision against you that you don’t think is right. It’s frustrating but it’s not something I dwell on and at the same time it isn’t the reason we lost the Grand Final.
“There were other areas in that game that could have won it for us so it would be wrong for me to dwell on one penalty. That didn’t define our season and looking back doesn’t help anyone.”
SB: I see Michael McIlorum is leading the way once again in pre-season, winning all the shuttle-runs and stamina tests. Is he superhuman or are all the other players afraid of overtaking him?
ST: “I don’t think anyone’s scared of him, they just can’t catch him. He’s unique Micky, he can run forever, he’s got a special engine on him.
“I don’t know another player who could have seven weeks off and then win all of the fitness tests without breaking a sweat. I think it’s because he has such a strong mental resilience.”
SB: It’s so good to see so many young French faces in this year’s pre-season training group.
ST: “Last year was pretty successful and a big part of that was the way that when the French kids were asked to step in they didn’t just do a job or fill a gap, they had a real impact upon the team and that was a massive boost to the side.
“Now these kids are one year older and a whole lot wiser, they got a taste of it last year and the vast majority of our entire squad has got some first team experience, some a lot of it.
“They are in a lot better position now to kick on with their careers than they were last year. You can train as much as you like but you can never replicate Super League experience.
“They all know now the speed and the physicality of the game and there will be no surprises when they are called up next time.”
SB: Arthur Mourgue is at his irrepressible best at training, do you think he is eyeing up your shirt?
ST: “Arthur’s been brilliant for us, but I’m trying to help him transition into a number nine. I keep telling him to stay up in the middle and just let me do the full-back work.
“He can help Micky out with all of the forwards.”
SB: Three Australians are heading to Perpignan next month (Mitchell Pearce, Dylan White and Tyrone May) what will they bring to the Dragons?
ST: “Last year we were pretty good and a few players have left since then so it was important that any replacements should improve the side.
“After such a good season it was crucial that we invested, and I know every team is doing the same, but Mitchell Pearce coming in is huge for us.
“In Jimmy (Maloney) we had one of the most talented and experienced halves in the game and it’s almost like we’ve got a younger version of that now in Mitchell.
“We lost Joel and Dylan Napa will now be in our middles and Jason Baitieri used to be brilliant for us in several positions but Tyrone May can play back row, centre, halves, anywhere.
“Each one of our new signings have been selected for specific roles and I think they have the capacity to give us something extra special next year.”
SB: What is the mood in the playing group?
ST: “We’re desperate to get ourselves back into the same position, with a chance to win a Grand Final.
“It was a massive occasion for the club and we could all feel it.
“We want another build-up with all of the fanfare. What happened in Perpignan on that incredible semi-final night was pretty special.
“Once you’ve been to a Grand Final you need to get back there again as soon as possible.
“We’ve got the first one out of the way now and hopefully it will put us in better stead next time to turn that two-point defeat into a two-point win.”
SB: We saw a capacity attendance at the season-launch party in Perpignan and record figures for sponsorship and commercial activity at the club have just been announced. What impact has last season had on the profile of the Dragons?
ST: “Everybody wants to follow a successful team and last year was fantastic for us so it’s inevitable that there will be some bounce-back with increased support and sponsorship.
“The real task now is to build upon that, it’s brilliant that we are attracting more interest and making a noise in France.
“We want to be a big club. When you look at some of the more established big names and the amount of support they get, the shirts they sell and the big name sponsors they attract, that’s where we want to be at.
“We’re not one of the big names in Super League yet. You have to do it year on year to be thought of as a big club and while we are at the very start of it, things are looking very promising for Catalans Dragons.
“It’s a really exciting place, everybody wants to get behind the club. I can sense that people are still on a high from that semi-final in Perpignan.
“We need to create that every week at the Brutus. The fans are crazy passionate here and it’s up to us to keep bringing success to them.”
SB: It’s clear that you see a successful future for the club but you have only signed a one-year extension for next season. Are you looking elsewhere beyond that?
ST: “I want to stay at Catalans, I’ll be speaking to the club before the start of the season, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m loving my time here.
“This is a really exciting club heading in the right direction and I would like a longer deal so I’ll try to speak to Bernard (Guasch, club President) and get something sorted.
“I truly believe this is a special club and it’s a privilege to play here. I know I still have some value in me, I might be 32 but I’ve still got a few years in me and I don’t want to play anywhere else right now.”
SB: Are you looking forward to your first-ever French Super League derby next season?
ST: “Catalans v Toulouse is going to be crazy and it has the potential to be a huge derby, it’s a brilliant new addition to the game’s traditional derbies which always bring out the best in players and supporters.
“I think we all want to see Toulouse get some real backing on the terraces, it’s such a big city and hopefully if they market it well they can get a massive following.
“It would be amazing to see Toulouse succeed, they’ve got a pretty special stadium and I am looking forward to playing there.”
SB: Is there any pressure on Catalans or Toulouse to play a French style of Rugby League, free-flowing with flair, to entertain supporters?
ST: “Absolutely not, the only pressure is to win games.
“The way you get growth in support and television deals and increased sponsorship is by winning games. You’ve got to be successful on the pitch and reach finals.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on Toulouse to play a certain way to entertain people, they just need to win, they need to be impressive in that first year.
“The last thing they want is to dip in and be straight back out, they want to string some wins together and build in strength.
“They need to stay in the comp, it’s so good for Super League to have another French team and for French Rugby League.
“Catalans getting to the Grand Final and Toulouse being promoted in the same year was an unbelievable boost for the game here.”
SB: Toulouse seem to have stuck with their promotion-winning squad and resisted the urge to spend big on Australian imports, do you think that will be enough to survive at the top?
ST: “They’ve not made loads of signings, they seem pretty confident with the squad they have which is always a good sign.
“They’ve already got a good blend of experience and young French talent, I think they have got a good balance.
“It will be good to see my old mate Harrison Hansen on a pitch again, although I don’t want to be bumping into him too often, I’ll try and avoid any physical contact for eighty minutes.
“I thought he’d retired ten years ago but he’s obviously made of tough stuff and he’s coming around again.”
SB: Apart from Toulouse, are there any other teams that you will be looking out for next season?
ST: “Leeds are always a major threat, they’ve never really gone away, they have made some shrewd signings and the way that Aidan Seizer and Blake Austin combine will be fundamental to how they go in 2022.
“After that, you can’t get past the usual suspects with Wigan, Saints, Warrington and hopefully ourselves now.
“I can’t see any major surprises next year and Leeds’ season will depend upon how well those two great half-backs connect. If they click I think Leeds will go really well.”
SB: With a World Cup next year, how much are you looking forward to picking up the England armband once more?
ST: “Straight after the Grand Final I gave (England coach) Shaun Wane a ring to let him know I wouldn’t be fit for the England-France international here in Perpignan which was obviously disappointing but I was happy to see Batty (John Bateman) getting a go with the armband.
“The pressure is now upon me to stay fit, play well and be in with a shout of wearing that armband again.”
SB: Do you think England are genuine contenders to win the tournament?
ST: “I don’t see why we cannot go and win the World Cup. If you look at the quality of players we have now performing at the highest level in Super League and the NRL we should be confident in competing with the top teams.
“We have a new coach, new systems, new set-ups and it seems a good recipe to get us that one step further. Have faith.”
SB: With a French World Cup planned for 2025, if your England days are over would you ever consider playing for Les Tricolores?
ST: “I actually qualify for France now, I’ve lived here for over three years so I could apply for the French team if they’d have me.
“Just imagine me and Jimmy Maloney playing in a World Cup final for France against the Kangaroos!
“Obviously, I’m not going to do that at this stage but who knows when I am out of the England picture?
“I’m feeling more French by the day.”
SAM'S READY TO ROLL
Man of Steel Tomkins ripping into pre-season training and planning to go "that one step further"
THE FINAL PAY-OFF
Catalans cash in on
historic table-topping Super League season
CATALANS DRAGONS are cashing in on their table-topping 2021 season with a huge increase in sponsorship and commercial support at Stade Gilbert Brutus (writes STEVE BRADY).
Club President Bernard Guasch told local media in Perpignan that there had been an explosion of interest from businesses and supporters following the successes of last season.
Speaking to the city’s main newspaper L’Independant (a commercial partner of the Dragons), Guasch said, “It has been an unforgettable and magical time for this club.
“The weeks that we spent building up to the final, and the incredible semi-final carnival that we created here, have been the best that I have ever seen at the club.
“It is clear that we have caught people’s imaginations and we are continuing to reap the benefits.
“While our season ticket sales haven’t soared because people are still waiting to know the effects of the health crisis, our commercial activity has almost doubled.
“This is the direct fallout of reaching the Grand Final. We have already exceeded all previous commercial revenues and we will break every record next season.
“We have had around four million euros per season coming in from private sponsorships and already before the season starts we are at five million. It really is an extraordinary performance.”
The 2022 Dragons' kit has now been released (pictured) by new manufacturers, Italian sportswear company Macron.
Catalans have a new main shirt sponsor, local swimming spool specialists Fluidra Zodiac.
And the prospect of a new television deal to cover Catalans and Toulouse Olympique Super League home games in 2022 is becoming closer.
Guasch revealed: “We are working alongside Toulouse Olympique and the French Federation on a TV project. We will resume negotiations with beIN Sports in January and I hope we will be able to strike a deal to resume coverage of the game in France.
“At the moment, our club is recognised more abroad than it is at home on television.
“TV coverage in France is crucial for ourselves and Toulouse Olympique and we will leave no stone unturned until we secure it.”
Any deal with French broadcasters would open the door for more live screening of games in the UK as Sky Sports would pick up the coverage from Perpignan and Toulouse and broadcast it for British viewers.
Meanwhile, the Mayor of Perpignan is continuing to encourage both codes of rugby to come together in the city with an historic ground-sharing arrangement.
The leader of the city council, Louis Aliot said, “I will try to use persuasion and not a bulldozer,” to encourage professional rugby union and Rugby League to share facilities.
Catalans Dragons have a rolling lease and plans to extend and develop at Stade Gilbert Brutus but the council would like them to move in with rugby union neighbours USAP at the nearby Stade Aimé Giral to share facilities and costs, making way for a professional football team to take over at the Brutus. Both stadia are owned by the local authority.
JAMES CUNNINGHAM is hoping for a French renaissance to his Rugby League career at Toulouse Olympique (writes STEVE BRADY).
At only 27, the Hull-born hooker has turned out for six different professional clubs so far (including loans) and he is hoping his switch to the south of France will be the turning point for his promising yet stuttering career.
He was the first target for Sylvain Houles as the TO coach assembled his first-ever top-flight squad: “I have always had my eye on him, he was incredible every time he played against us,” said Houles.
One of four new signings by Super League’s newly-promoted club, all eyes will be on Cunningham to see if he can finally achieve the success that many people have predicted for him.
“I’ve been unlucky,” Cunningham told Catalan Media: “I’ve had a lot of bad injuries, so my first challenge is to make sure my body is in order and injury free, allowing me to play some consistent rugby.
“I want to come here and string a season of solid performances together without breaking for injuries. That’s the only way a player can start to achieve some form and do what they love most about the game.”
Released by home-town club Hull FC in 2015, Cunningham stood out in a four-season stint with London Broncos then switched to the ill-fated Toronto Wolfpack before returning to the UK with Huddersfield Giants last season.
“It’s been eventful,” he said, “Too eventful.
“Just like all players, all I want to do is play every week to the best of my ability.”
Cunningham has had four weeks of pre-season training already and has immediately settled into his new environment but admits to being surprised by one aspect of his time in France.
He said, “Everybody told me that it would be nice and warm when I got here but it rained non-stop when I landed.
“But I’ve played down here in summer before and I know how hot it can get.”
A fair-skinned ginger-haired boy from Hull will have to take extra precautions as the season progresses in 2022.
Cunningham added, “I used to have to wear Factor 20 sunscreen every time the sun came out back home, even though it was only eight degrees, so summer here is going to be a bit of a challenge.
“But I’m looking forward to it and I’m going to be the first Super League player to make his name wearing a big sombrero for eighty minutes.”
Joking apart, Cunningham believes his new club are deadly serious in their intentions to survive and succeed in Super League.
“I’ve got every confidence that Toulouse will have a big impact next season,” he said.
“I believe in what they are doing here, the potential for this club is massive and I want to be a part of it.
“Like everybody else, I probably expected them to make some big-name signings for Super League but I think it’s better this way.
“I remember when I was at London Broncos and we made the conscious decision not to make too many signings just for the sake of it and we got ten wins out of the season.
“When you’ve got every faith in the players that are already here it pays off and just looking around the dressing room at Toulouse we are well capable of snagging some wins and a mid-table finish next season.
“The coaching staff have helped the new guys fit in quickly. It did help that I knew Matty, Gadwin and Andrew Dixon from playing with them at Toronto, we’ve been through that debacle together so we’ve got a bit of a bond.
“We weren’t together long for the Wolfpack but because of what happened there we got pretty close to each other. I’ve played with Tony Gigot and Guy Armitage before so it has been an easy transition so far.
“The training sessions are very intense but the coaching staff seem to have a lot of faith in the players and how they behave outside of the club environment.”
It isn’t only the wealth of Super League and NRL experience already at the club (plus the latest addition of himself, former Wigan centre Chris Hankinson, winger Matty Russell and prop Gadwin Springer), it is another aspect of the TO squad that has impressed Cunningham most.
He said, “The level of talent among the young French kids at the club is fantastic.
“We’ve got some experienced players here from all over the world but the local lads aren’t out of their depth, if anything, they have been at the forefront of all of the club’s recent success.”
Cunningham has competition for his preferred role at number nine but he is happy to fit in anywhere.
He said, “There are three hookers here, me, Eloi Pelissier and Lloyd White and I really rate these guys so it’s a fierce competition for that position which is good for the team.
“I’ve already spoken to Sylvain and assured him I’d be more than happy to step in at centre, I’ve also played half-back in the past so to be honest I’ll play wherever he wants me to play.
“I just can’t wait to run out at this stadium. I have never played at the Stade Ernest Wallon, I had only played at their old ground when visiting with previous teams.
“We’re training now at the Wallon and the facilities that we share with (French rugby union champions) Stade Toulousain are out of this world.
“Stade have some of the very best players on the planet and they demand the best so I feel very lucky to be a part of it all.
“Toulouse rugby union is the biggest thing in the city, everybody wants to watch it or sponsor it, everyone’s involved.
“If Toulouse Olympique can achieve just a small percentage of that success, it’s going to be massive.
“The biggest surprise for me is how welcoming the other sports have been towards Toulouse Olympique.
“I’ve been at clubs with shared facilities before, London and Huddersfield, but it was only a ground-share, not much of a link between the sports.
“Here you can feel that all of the other sports in the city are pulling for each other and vouching for us and it’s such a refreshing approach.
“Instead of fighting each other the clubs are learning from the different sports and building upon their successes.”
So far so good for Cunningham but already there is another challenge for the boy from East Riding.
He said, “I’ll be honest, I turned up thinking that everybody here would be speaking English and it wasn’t the case at all.
“With Toulouse being so close to Spain I’m not sure what language people are talking, everything is spoken at 100mph. I’m very good at asking for stuff but as soon as they start talking back to me I haven’t got a clue what’s going on so there’s a long way to go for me yet.
“It’s early days yet but I’m loving it. I’m missing family of course already, and a good cup of Yorkshire Tea, but hopefully my wife will be able to come over soon and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Toulouse Olympique will break from training on December 23rd and resume January 3rd with two pre-season fixtures planned, against a French Federation President’s XIII and Catalans Dragons.
FRENCH WHEELCHAIR Rugby League has celebrated another spectacular success with the announcement of its elevation to “Elite Sport” status by the government of France.
The double world champion-winning international side’s reputation was enhanced by a two-nil series win over England at Medway Park, Kent, last month.
But this latest development has the potential to take the discipline even higher as it unleashes extra funding and privileges from government sources, ensuring strength of support for coming generations.
French Federation President Luc Lacoste, who has just completed his first full year in the role, had made it a personal mission of his to help achieve this status.
He told Catalan Media: “Given my commitment to the Treiziste cause and after having led several meetings at the sports ministry in recent months to defend access to this status, I admit that this news gives me a very special joy that I would like to share with all of you.
“This is huge for wheelchair Rugby League and the game as a whole in France. It will open so many doors for so many people to get involved.”
MY TIME TO SHINE
James Cunningham is ready to reach his potential at Toulouse Olympique
CATALANS DRAGONS will come back down to earth next season after two years of being Super League’s jet-setters (writes Steve Brady).
The travel restrictions of Covid meant that private flights were the only option for travel to and from the UK since the pandemic struck, but the return of available commercial flights means the club can avoid the huge costs incurred and use regular services.
Coach Steve McNamara admitted that the private flights had benefitted his players because of the quick matchday turnarounds but it wasn’t financially viable indefinitely.
He told Catalan Media, “We’re looking at all options. It’s clear that the private jet does help us but you have to balance out the costs now there are other options available.
“We might use the private flights for some games and regular flights for others. Our board will decide that for us but we will have a mixture of travel arrangements depending upon the fixtures.
“It might suit us to stay in England for a few days if we have back-to-back away games and a combination of the different travel arrangements will be good for us.
“We have had to be extremely flexible over the past couple of years and a bit of variation does you no harm in all walks of life.”
McNamara has overseen his second week of pre-season training and he said he was impressed with his players’ attitude so far.
He added, “I think they are very hungry and extremely keen to get over the disappointment of the ending to last season and I sense a keenness to get back to work.
“They know what they have to do now to go one better and that is start again from the very beginning and the basics. They understand that we can’t just expect to be at that same level, reaching a Grand Final, without a lot of hard work.
“Their attitude and desire is first class and they have been outstanding so far in the first two weeks, there is clearly a hunger to improve and I’m happy so far where everybody’s at.
“It’s been a bit cold, wet and wild for the first two weeks, it’s always very windy here this time of the year, and it has been perfect preparation for those first two months of games in England.”
The squad will have to wait for the arrivals of three new Australian signings Mitchell Pearce, Dylan Napa and Tyrone May who will land in Perpignan after Christmas.
Pearce will step into the boots of his former Sydney Roosters and State of Origin team-mate James Maloney at stand-off while Napa will fill in for the retired Joel Tomkins in the pack.
However, May is expected to fulfil a utility roll according to McNamara who added: “Tyrone will play anywhere and everywhere, that’s the best way to describe it, his intuitive skills to be able to play in so many positions to such a high standard really adds depth to our squad.
“But for me, this period for us as a playing group isn’t about what the starting 17 is going to look like it’s just about improving every single player.”
The Dragons will break for Christmas on December 22nd then return to training on January 3rd with the entire squad assembling before a pre-season friendly with Toulouse at the end of the month.
There was a capacity attendance of 1,200 supporters at last week’s season-launch party in Perpignan and McNamara believes the successes of last season has taken the club to new levels in the region.
He added “It was outstanding to see so many people there reflecting upon last season and getting a glimpse of what lies ahead.
“There is a great ambience over here amongst everybody at the club but also outside of it too.
“The publicity that was generated by our first ever appearance in a Grand Final has had a huge impact on everyone around here.”
The club awards were made at the ceremony with Sam Tomkins taking the Player of the Season trophy although it was another Sam who got the biggest cheer of the night with the Players’ Player award.
“Sam Tomkins was rightly Man of Steel because he had an outstanding season but players vote immediately after every match and it is clear that they have appreciated the momentum-shifts that Sam Kasiano brought to the games.
“We had many players who raised their game last year and Sam was up there with the best.
“Gaining that vote from your fellow players is very special and I know he appreciates it.”
Kasiano couldn’t attend the awards night as he is still in Australia with the blessing of his coach.
McNamara said, “Sam is still back home down under alongside Samisoni Langi and Josh Drinkwater and he will return after Christmas.
“I gave those players the opportunity to go back because I felt it was the most important thing for them.
“If they are going to be good for us again next season it was crucial that they got to go home and spend time with their families.
“They haven’t had the chance for two years so I have no issues at all with it and they will come back better for it in the New Year.”
Catalans supporters will have to wait until the New Year for the chance to see the playing kit for season 2022 until negotiations with a new major sponsor are concluded.
Italian sportswear manufacturers Macron have replaced O’Neills at Stade Gilbert Brutus and they are awaiting the green-light to release the new Dragons’ kit.
MEANWHILE, in Super League’s second French city, Sylvain Houles is still looking for players to join his French foreign legion at Toulouse Olympique although he won’t be tempted into recruitment just to make up the numbers.
The TO coach will have a 27-man squad for his first season in Super League but he believes in quality not quantity, and a future for the club which is based upon the development of local talent.
Houles told Catalan Media, “Ideally, we would have liked one or two more additions to the squad but we haven’t found the right players.
“With being promoted just a few weeks ago it has been difficult to find available players who are right for us.
“We’re still looking but we will only make a move if and when we find the right player.”
Houles said he was happy with the playing group he has assembled and he was confident his team will be competitive in the top flight next year.
He added, “There is a lot of confidence in this squad, I believe in these players and they do too.
“When you look at our squad we have 21 players who are internationals, we have 19 who have played Super League.
“On top of that we have seven players who have won Super League or NRL, so we’re good and we’re ready for the challenge.”
The addition of two English players (hooker James Cunningham and centre Chris Hankinson) plus French prop Gadwin Springer has filled in for departing players but Houles is determined to look closer to home and promote young French players when the time is right.
He said, “We’re going to have a look at a few of our reserves and juniors, we have some really good prospects but they are still a little bit raw and they wouldn’t be able to play Super League next year.
“We’ll try to bring these players in for training sessions with the first team to show them the levels they need to be at.
“I’m always looking for good French players, that is the future for this club, we need kids who are keen and understand what it will take to get to Super League level.”
Houles said promotion to the top flight had “lit the fires of ambition” of young players at the club.
He added, “We can sense it in our juniors and reserves, the mentality has changed since we were promoted.
“It’s all about giving opportunities to young kids and making sure they can dream high and achieve their goals.
“A second French team in Super League changes the landscape entirely, it’s not just a second route to the top, it is a serious career choice for young players.”
A recent spell of cold, wet and windy weather has proved a challenge at training for Toulouse but Houles said it had made his English recruits feel immediately at home.
The coach said, “We’ve had a lot of rain so it was a bit tricky to find a field suitable for training but the facilities here at Stade Ernest Wallon are first-class so we’re very happy.
“We’ve just finished our fourth week and the boys are pulling up really well.
“We’ve been laughing with the English guys, Jimmy (James Cunningham) asked me why it was raining in France, he was promised some sunshine, but it’s back to normal next week.
“The new recruits have settled in well and been really keen at training.
“Gadwin (Springer) is still recovering from his knee injury but Jimmy and Chris (Hankinson) have bedded in immediately.”
Toulouse will hold two pre-season fixtures, against a Presidents’ XIII from the French championship (date to be arranged) and away to Catalans Dragons on January 30th.
Dragons training this week at Casbestany
Catalans can switch back to commercial flights after two years
in the jet-set
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE face a frenzy of flights at the end of their debut season in Super League with five away fixtures in six weeks (writes STEVE BRADY).
Super League’s newest side spent all of last season travelling to away games in the championship because of Covid travel restrictions but there will be no private jets for the club next year, raising concerns over the impact of commercial travel on training and recovery as the season reaches its finalé.
TO Chief Executive Cedric Garcia told Catalan Media: “I would have liked maybe one more home game in the closing stages of the regular season because we have five away games from six fixtures which is a challenge for any club which has to travel by air, particularly now we have to travel on commercial airlines.
“We always knew that we would have to return to regular scheduled flights and that we won’t be able to charter private flights next year purely because of the huge costs involved.
“So instead of in-and-out, we will have to fly the day before the game and return the day after which eats into our preparation and recovery time for following fixtures.
“It will be a challenge as the season reaches its climax but we will cope with it, our mindset at Toulouse is that there are things that we can control and things that we can’t so we just get on with it.”
Apart from the end-of-season travel troubles, Garcia said the Olympians were happy with their debut Super League fixture list which begins with a televised home game against Huddersfield Giants on Saturday February 12th.
He added, “The good news is that on the first weekend of the season, Catalans are away so we are hoping to draw a huge French crowd in front of Sky Sports’ TV cameras and hopefully French TV too.
“We have been very busy, we played a Grand Final on the 10th of October and we started pre-season on the 15th of November so it’s been a very short time for us to finalise our squad and begin our preparations for our first season in Super League.
“We have also changed our training venues and have worked very hard to ensure everything is in place for the coaches and players to settle in quickly.
“It’s almost like we never stopped but we are where we are, the real hard work starts now and the fixtures are out so we know what is ahead of us.”
Garcia said the club was working hard to promote ticket sales in a bid to fill the stands at the 18,000-seater Stade Ernest Wallon.
He added, “We had already started our season-ticket promotional campaign and now that the fixtures have been announced things are moving really fast so we have extended our Early-Bird special offer prices up until Christmas.
Toulouse's end of season challenge with five away games from six
“Already we have felt an expectation in the city and a willingness to come and watch Toulouse in Super League.
“At the same time we would like as many English fans as possible to visit us and enjoy our famous city. We have many partners and we can propose the right hotels and right places to visit.
“We want to make people feel really welcome here and fully appreciate what we have to offer.
“We have agreed a partnership with the people at Catalan Sport Tours who have a great deal of experience of bringing English supporters to France.
“There is so much to do here, not just the many bars and restaurants and the River Garonne, you can visit Space City and the many vineyards on the outskirts, Albi and Carcassonne are nearby, two very famous and historic venues for Rugby League and beautiful places in their own right.”
Garcia said there was a mood of “quiet confidence” at the club as they prepare for their Super League debut, adding: “We are not worried, we are excited about what is coming up. We have some new players, we have a new training set-up which is a massive improvement for us.
“Everybody’s happy, even in a short period we have taken a big step forward, we’re not over-confident because we know it’s going to be a tough challenge but we are focused and we believe in ourselves.
“We are ready for it, let’s see what the season will bring.”
The Olympians are hoping that their promotion to the top flight will be the catalyst for a deal to put Rugby League back on television screens in France.
Toulouse are working alongside Catalans Dragons and the French RL Federation on a strategy to appeal to French broadcasters in a bid to have regular live coverage of games at Stade Ernest Wallon and Stade Gilbert Brutus.
TO Chief Executive Cedric Garcia told Catalan Media, “Television coverage in France is so important. There are two levels of sport, with or without TV, and there is a massive difference between them both.
“It was always part of our plan that if we could get into Super League we might add more weight to Catalans Dragons’ appeal to French broadcasters.
“We’re working with Catalans and the French Federation to have a common strategy for TV in France and we are holding a meeting
to see the best way forward, with the approval of Super League of course.”
Garcia said it was crucial that Rugby League in France received “the oxygen” of live coverage to raise the game’s profile and make it more attractive to sponsors and supporters
He added, “It is an absolute priority for a professional sport and we are trying to put together the best strategy and scenario in which we can make this happen.
“We are still waiting for official confirmation but if the Rugby League World Cup is to be held in France in 2025 it is so important that we have established relationships with television companies.
“We have a massive opportunity here for French Rugby League and it is crucial that we seize it.”
Up until 2020, Sky Sports shared production costs with beIN Sports for live coverage of all Super League games in Perpignan but beIN pulled out of the arrangement leaving Catalans Dragons alone to finance broadcasts.
President Bernard Guasch initially agreed to pay for TV coverage but admitted it wasn’t cost-effective because of the impact upon attendance figures during and following the impact of Covid and the new Health Passes needed by French people to attend public events.
The hope now is that a double-headed approach including two historic Super League derbies between Toulouse and Catalans will be a more attractive proposition to French broadcasters.
“It will be a challenge as the season reaches its climax but we will cope with it, our mindset at Toulouse is that there are things that we can control and things that we can’t so we just get on with it....” CEDRIC GARCIA
IT IS ALWAYS a dilemma for a newly-promoted club whether or not to stick or twist for new players and coaching staff when they face the challenge of stepping up to a higher level but Super League’s newest arrivals have decided they have nothing Toulouse by retaining their championship Grand Final-winning combination (writes STEVE BRADY).
The top-flight’s second French club have rewarded their coach Sylvain Houles and the bulk of his playing squad with extended contracts, refusing to follow their fellow Frenchies Catalans Dragons’ appetite for NRL stars and drafting in hooker James Cunningham, centre Chris Hankinson, winger/full-back Matty Russell and prop Gadwin Springer to replace the departed Bastien Ader, Jy Hitchcox and Rémi Casty.
“This is Toulouse Olympique,” Houles told Catalan Media: “And we do things differently, vive la difference!”
The 40-year-old former French international, who played in Super League for Huddersfield, London and Wakefield, was also instrumental as a player for the Olympians in their rise through the ranks but it is his coaching and determination to stick with a French philosophy that has ultimately guided the club to the highest level in the European game.
“I am very happy with where we are, what we are doing, and what we have done in the last five weeks since winning the Grand Final.
“The club has rightly rewarded the players who worked so hard to get us here with extended deals and I am really happy that they have given me the green light to continue as coach.
“We’re nearly there, I would like one more player so we will go with 28 players in Super League next year.”
Houles admits his four new recruits so far haven’t grabbed global headlines but he insists that they were always his targets as they each have points to prove having played previously for English clubs in Super League.
“Our new players have a point to prove and I know they have the right attitude for the challenge ahead.
He added, “I believe in James Cunningham (ex-Huddersfield), we have played a lot of games against him and he is a great player, he knows his footy and he is exactly the kind of guy I’m all about.
“And in Chris Hankinson (ex-Wigan), I’ve been trying to sign him for the last five years, I know him as a man and also his story as a player. Every time I saw him play for Wigan I wanted him in my squad, he will bring so many new things to the way we play.
“With Gadwin Springer (ex-Castleford) it’s a little bit different, I know him and have watched him develop and I think he will be coming back to France with a little bit of revenge in mind. He has played at Super League level and he will want to show English clubs what he is all about and I like that about him, I like that kind of attitude.
“Matty Russell (ex-Wigan, Warrington and Leigh) plays exactly the way we like it at Toulouse, he is explosive, creative and he will really suit the open spaces of the pitch at Stade Wallon.
“These kind of players will be given the chance to shine again in Super League at Toulouse and they have the right approach and appetite for what is ahead.”
Toulouse’s refusal to pay big bucks for Australian imports could pay off in the long-term, but does Houles believe he has a strong enough squad to be competitive against the likes of St Helens, Wigan and Leeds?
“Absolutely,” he said, “The 27 players I have at the moment are at Super League level.
“Most of our players have Super League or international experience so I am really pleased with the squad we have assembled.
“At the end of the day, we built a Super League squad last season just to make sure that we could gain promotion and they did exactly that.
“This squad has shown it can compete and be successful at the highest level. People might ask where are our big signings but we made them last year. Tony Gigot, Dom Peyroux, Joseph Paulo, Mitch Garbutt were all brought in and Lloyd White and Harrison Hansen were already here.
“These are the big name signings, we already have them, and they have been brilliant for us. And the added luxury for me is that these players are already embedded into our system, they know what we are all about, they are speaking our language.
“These players don’t need time to settle in, they are ready to go on day one. When you move to a different country it’s hard, you need time for you and your family to get to know the club, the city, the people and the different culture.
“It’s a massive readjustment for players, particularly those with families and children and the language barrier can often be too big for some and they return home.
“The Super League players we signed last year have gone through all of this, they are comfortable and they can focus on their roles within the team. That is why this new season’s squad will be even better, because of that experience.
“We are confident, we are ready for the challenge, we have faced a lot of challenges on our journey to Super League and achieved every one of them.”
Houles has one more signing to make and he is looking for a forward following a devastating injury to one of his latest recruits.
The TO coach said, “We would have been complete already but we signed former Catalans Dragons forward Lambert Belmas from Lezignan and two days later he snapped his achilles tendon and it is such a shame. I really believe in him very strongly and we will honour his contract and help him through recovery but it leaves me with one more addition to make.
“Of course we know that it is a big step up to Super League, so many promoted teams fail to stay up but we believe in ourselves and what we are doing. We believe in our staff and our players and we know what we have to do.
“We know we have to put a lot of hours into our preparations and obviously we have stepped things up behind the scenes because it’s Super League, our medical team has gone full-time and our whole operation has taken a big step forward.
“I believe that we were already very professional as a club but this is another level, we know it will be harder but we have everything in place to prepare the players for the challenge.”
Toulouse’s reputation for free-flowing French flair Rugby League has proven successful against championship opposition but will Houles have to turn down the razzle-dazzle against hard-bitten Super League opposition?
Not according to the French coach, who added, “It’s in our DNA, it’s in us and we are never going to change, we have recruited players who want to play that style of rugby, players who are footy-smart who know how to react quickly and correctly during games.
“We do want to play the expansive game but there is no risk in the way that we do it, we are in control and know when to turn it on or off.
“We’ve shown that we can play Super-League style, through the middle and go set for set defensively, we’ve beaten Widnes and Hull KR with that kind of rugby, we went to Headingley against Leeds and I believe the score could have been a little bit different if things had gone our way just after half-time in that game so we really believe in ourselves and the way we play the game.
“We will keep going, playing the way we do but the difference will be our defence. We’ve worked really hard on that side of our game, we set ourselves this goal in 2020 and although Covid ruined that season and had a major impact in 2021, we continued to put the effort in week-in, week-out, to improve our defence.
“We’re fully aware that the way we play in attack will give the opposition opportunities to counter so we have focused on our defence and I think you could see that during the last season.
“We began our pre-season training last week and we’ve got three good months to prepare, we’re very happy with the time available. It’s only five weeks since we last played so it’s been a very short break and we’ve kept in touch with the players so we know they have been looking after themselves.
“The players who took part in the England-France international will join us this week. We’ve got plenty of time before the Christmas break then a good five weeks to fine tune before the season starts.”
The familiar-feel to Houles’ squad is enhanced by the decision to stick with scrum-half Johnathan Ford as team captain next year and the “crucial retention” of one of Toulouse’s brightest young stars, giant prop forward Justin Sangaré.
The coach added, “Johnathan will be our captain again next season, he has been such a great player and leader for us and I thought this year was his best season for us.
“He works so hard for us on and off the pitch he is the natural choice to be captain.
“And the potential for Justin is huge. Since his performance for France against England, a lot of English people know him now and we have had a lot of interest in him from a lot of English clubs.
“But we’ve known him since he was 15 years old and he’s a great kid to coach, he is really dedicated and passionate about the game. He turns up every time and does his job, never complains, and that’s what every club wants.
“That’s why it was so important to secure him for next year because the other clubs are circling. He’s still a bit raw but his potential is there for all to see, believe me, he is going to grow and grow in Super League and he is a great player to watch.”
Houles is hoping visiting supporters from Super League clubs will enjoy the Toulouse Olympique match-day experience which he describes as “unique”.
He said, “I cannot wait for Super League supporters to come and see what we have here in Toulouse. This stadium and this team is the perfect combination and I think many people will be surprised by the game-day experience at Stade Ernest Wallon.
“It’s the home of (French rugby union giants) Stade Toulousain, but it is also our home and on match-day our colours are all over the LED and tv-screens, it’s a brilliant place to play or watch Rugby League.
“You are so close to the pitch as supporters, you are almost part of the team and the playing surface is one of the best in the world.
“It’s big, wide and perfectly flat so every team that comes here will have the chance to play fast and expansive Rugby League.
“The acoustics of the stadium create lots of atmosphere and most fans stay long after the game in the Bodega and bars where there is a real party mood.
“Toulouse is a super city with many wonderful people, it’s such a different environment to many other places in the game and if you are coming for the first time you are in for a treat.”
Toulouse is the centre of the aerospace and aviation industry in France but its nickname may have to change from Space City to Sport City according to Houles who is part of a brand new initiative to bring different codes together in the metropolis.
He said, “We plan to link up again on the pitch with Stade Toulousain once the Covid restrictions allow..
“We obviously maintain contact because our offices are next door to theirs at the stadium and there is a really good relationship between staff and players.
“There is so much to learn from each other, and we’ve taken things a step further now because we’ve established a WhatsApp group between the coaches of all professional sports organisations in the city, rugby union, football and Handball which is a really big sport in France.
“We meet regularly online and share our thoughts, that’s the way we do things in Toulouse. There is a good feeling in the city at the moment, it’s a great time to be working and living there.
“Professional sport in Toulouse is on a massive high and as coaches in our individual sports we can work together to benefit from each other.
“When the time is right, with Covid of course, we will have training and coaching sessions once more with the rugby union team.
“They, like us, learn most from a change of environment and an exchange of ideas. But we can also learn from other sports and they from us.”
The learning curve for Toulouse Olympique next year in Super League will be very steep and Sylvain Houles will have to draw upon all of his coaching resources to get the very best out of his squad of experienced Super League players and new recruits who have a point to prove. Will their unique approach to the game succeed at the highest level, or will “la difference” prove to be too much for the ambitious French club?
CATALANS DRAGONS supporters will have to wait until after Christmas to unwrap their latest present, Australian superstar half-back Mitchell Pearce.
The former Sydney Roosters, Newcastle Knights and State of Origin ace will land in Perpignan at the end of December after agreeing a two-year deal to replace his good friend James Maloney in the centre of the pitch at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
Pearce will return to the Roosters as he prepares to move to France and will train under former Catalans coach Trent Robinson after securing a release from the final year of his contract at Newcastle Knights.
The 32-year-old has an option of a third year on his deal with the Dragons and he told Australian media of his “excitement” at the challenge ahead.
He said, “I’m very grateful to Roosters chairman Nick Politis who invited me to train at the club until I got to France.
“I’ve spoken to Robbo (Robinson) and he said how happy he was for me and my opportunity to play at Catalans.
“He spoke about how proud the town of Perpignan is about their footy. To help win the first comp for them would be amazing.
“I am thrilled to have an opportunity to play for a proud Rugby League club like Catalans Dragons. They have some of the most passionate fans in the sport and it will be an honour to be able to represent them.”
Dragons coach Steve McNamara (a former assistant to coach Robinson while Pearce played at the Roosters) said, “We are delighted and excited by the signing of Mitchell.
“He has had an incredible career in the NRL and having worked closely with him before, I know the sheer quality and energy he will bring to our team.”
McNamara still has two overseas signing spots available in his squad for 2022 and the Dragons have recently been linked with sacked Penrith Panthers half-back Tyrone May and prop-forward Dylan Napa who has been released by Canerbury Bulldogs.
Another former Roosters player, and ex-Catalans front-rower, Sam Moa is set to return to the Dragons in a coaching role following his decision to retire from playing.
A recurrence of an arm injury has prompted Moa to hang up his boots after a season with French champions Lezignan and he is widely expected to step in as an assistant to coach McNamara at Catalans.
“It’s always a tough decision to retire but it’s the right time for me now,” Moa told Catalan Media.
“I’ve had a great career as a player and I’ve made so many friends in the game. I hope I can give something back now and pass on some of my knowledge and experience to others.”
Meanwhile, in other news from Perpignan, Catalans Dragons are “fully aware” of comments made by the city’s Mayor Louis Aliot regarding the possibility of a ground-share with rugby union neighbours USAP at Stade Aimé Giral.
The civic leader raised the issue in a council meeting last week after announcing his intention to bring professional football to Perpignan and suggesting that amateur club Canet FC could use Stade Gilbert Brutus as their new home.
The local authority owns both the Brutus and the Giral and the Mayor said he’d be keen to look into the possibility of a cross-code groundshare, although both USAP and the Dragons have rolling leases and either club could veto the idea.
Giral has a larger attendance capacity of 14,600 (compared to the Brutus’ 12,000) and is an all-seater fully-enclosed and roofed stadium with on-site all-weather training facilities.
Dragons supporters were quick to flood social media with angry reactions to the Mayor’s comments as there is still a bitter divide between League and union in the city which has continued until as recently as 2019 when the regional head of the 15-a-side code Alain Doucet stated he would be “happy to see Rugby League damaged” by USAP’s promotion into the Top 14 division, the highest level of French rugby union.
"We already have a Super League squad, we put it together last season..."
BACK TO THE FUTURE
French Rugby League chief wants to get the game back on the box
FRENCH FEDERATION chief Luc Lacoste wants to turn back time and put Rugby League back on television screens in France.
A decision by the FFRXIII ruling body to reject live tv broadcast contracts for fear of an impact upon gate receipts in the 1970s is widely believed to have been the game’s biggest downfall in France and the new chairman wants to put the 13-a-side code back in front of the viewing public.
“We have to revisit a decision that we should never have made,” Lacoste announced at the weekend.
Following the “glory years” of the 1950s for the French game, Rugby League was in prime position to become the leading rugby code in the country but when offers to cover the game on tv were rejected, broadcasters turned to rugby union which then exploded in popularity because of the increased exposure and it remains the dominant code in France.
Now Lacoste, who took over as President last December, is making it his mission to put the French game back on the box.
He said, “Already, we have ensured that our Elite One championship will be on television this year with regional tv company Via Occitanie and ‘Sport In France’ but we need to do so much more to raise our profile.
“Just a few days ago our sport was at the forefront of the French sporting scene with a first-rate TV production broadcast of the France-England international on renowned TV channels such as the BBC, Fox in Australia and L'Equipe TV. These channels congratulated the Federation on the quality of the production and the show on offer.
“The equal treatment of the women's and men's teams, both broadcast live on major international channels, clearly sets our sport apart, and we can be proud of it. No other sport does this like we do.”
Lacoste called for unity among the many factions within French Rugby League to offer a collective approach to broadcasters, adding: “We learned so much from these televised internationals and although we can see the progress that remains to be made, we now know that everything is possible to put this sport back where it belongs.
“Let's not skip the steps and above all let us remain united because it is the essential key to our success.
“It is all together that we will succeed in the ambition, perhaps a little crazy, that we have set ourselves: to rebuild the XIII into what it should never have ceased to be.”
Lacoste was last week appointed to the Board of International Rugby League (IRL) as one of three European Rugby League-nominated Directors.
The FFRXIII President said, “Joining the Board of IRL gives me great pride and I am happy to join the other members who sit on it. Working under the chairmanship of Troy Grant is also a great opportunity as we share the same values.
“I thank the members for their warm welcome and I am sure that with good will, we will advance our sport on a global level."
The make-up of the IRL Board was reviewed in 2016 and as a result, for the first time in its history, three independent directors, one of whom is Chair, were appointed. The review also broadened the positions on the Board to include six Directors appointed directly through the two major confederations, European Rugby League and Asia Pacific Rugby League and two appointed from the countries with the major professional leagues, England and Australia.
IRL Chairman Troy Grant added, “We are a stronger Board with the inclusion of Luc, and I would like to welcome him to the table. Luc brings a huge passion for rugby league and with that comes a strong vision, ambition, and enthusiasm for what we can achieve together.
“The membership of IRL continues to grow and having someone on the Board who is a natural French speaker brings us even closer to many of our members. We continually strive to improve our engagement with the membership through regular communications and direct member briefing meetings. The appointment of Luc is further progress in this mission.”
FRENCH RUGBY LEAGUE is hoping to be back on top of the world this week when its wheelchair team takes on England in two Test Matches.
The double-world champions head to the Medway Sports Park in Kent for the fixtures on Wednesday and Saturday with joint-coach Laurent Dupuy promising an explosive contest between “the two greatest rivals” in the sport.
The French team has been on an intensive training programme designed to take part in this year’s postponed Rugby League World Cup following 18-months of inaction due to Covid restrictions.
However, Dupuy believes they are ready to roll and he is confident they can maintain their position as the leading nation in the sport.
He said, “The players are in very high spirits for this confrontation against our best enemies. They know that this is the first step towards winning the supreme title next year.
“What better way to prepare for the future World Cup than to be able to play what could possibly be the Final a year in advance?
“Of course the Covid pandemic has reshuffled the cards by pushing back the deadline for one year.
“But we have been busy with two training camps in the Bordeaux region thanks to the federal partnership with the Gironde departmental council and three more camps, twice in Carcassonne and last weekend in Perpignan alongside the girls.
“As far as our form is concerned, it is a bit of the unknown even if the practise games set up in Perpignan last weekend suggest that we are in good shape.
“The project on which the staff have been working for four years now consists of two strong orientations in attack: speed and support. The faster we are able to play by imposing a large volume of play on our opponents, the easier it will be for us to find or create weaknesses in their defensive organization.
“We are fortunate to have a generation of very good players, a mixture of experience and enthusiasm who ride hard, who live well and who know how to do a lot of things. The most difficult remains, to win the ultimate trophy and this tour is an important move in that direction.”
French Federation President Luc Lacoste recently met with government ministers in Paris in a bid to have the wheelchair version of the game recognised as an elite sport.
Lacoste told Catalan Media: “Wheelchair Rugby League is one of the priorities for the Federation so we went to plead high level status for this category of athletes.
“I am confident that we have presented a positive argument to the government and that we will have a positive outcome.”
Official recognition as an elite sport will allow participants to claim government financial aid to take time off work to participate and also open up other sources of revenue and support from central sources and the FFRXIII expect a decision to be made within two weeks.
“Wheelchair Rugby League is so important,” added Lacoste.
“The Federation has never done so much for its national team with many internships completed and an ambitious upcoming programme.
“It is crucial that our athletes, coaches and support staff get the support they need to compete at the highest level.”
FFRXIII Wheelchair squad to face England: Guillaume Mautz, Julien Verdi, Yann Verdy (Avignon); Adrien Zitten (Arbent); Jérémy Bourson, Gilles Clausells (capt), Nicolas Clausells, Arno Vargas (Catalans Dragons); Max Cabanne, Thomas Duhalde, Julien Penella (Euskadi); Lionel Alazard (vice capt), Dany Denuwelaere.
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE are continuing to consolidate and strengthen their squad for Super League with Scotland international Matty Russell the latest addition at Stade Ernest Wallon.
The 28-year-old former Wigan, Warrington, Toronto and Leigh fullback or winger has signed an initial one year deal at Stade Ernest Wallon and he is the third new recruit for coach Sylvain Houles as he builds his playing group for 2022.
Russell follows hooker James Cunningham and prop-forward Gadwin Springer into the Olympians’ squad as direct replacements for Rémi Casty, Bastien Ader and Jy Hitchcox who have all departed since the French club were promoted to the top flight.
“I’m very happy to have signed for Toulouse,” Russell said.
“The opportunity to play in France has always been an ambition of mine, I can’t wait to get started and meet the team and supporters.
“I have heard a lot of good things about this club and I like the philosophy of play instilled by Sylvain.
“I have spoken to him a lot and he really made me want to join the club and my family and I can’t wait to discover French culture.
“I’d like to thank Leigh Centurions, the fans were outstanding all year despite things not going our way.
“They have got great things going on there from top to bottom and I’m sure we will see them back in Super League in the near future.”
Meanwhile, TO coach Houles is still looking for “two or three quality players” as he strengthens his side for next year.
He told Catalan Media, “It was very important to find replacements for the players who left and we are very pleased with our recent recruitment.
“We are continuing our activity in the market and there will be further additions to what is already an experienced and talented playing group.”
Toulouse last week promoted young French centre Hugo Pezet into the first-team squad and extended the contracts of two French internationals: Anthony Marion, who can play hooker, half-back or loose-forward, and prop forward Maxime Puech.
Club President Bernard Sarrazain said, “We are continuing to strengthen the squad but it is also crucial that we build from within.
“Matty’s physical qualities and explosiveness complement our offensive range and I’m sure he will enjoy the open spaces of the pitch at Stade Ernest Wallon.
“The promotion of Hugo (Pezet) from our reserves is the way forward for this club, he embodies the new generation of players who will make French Rugby League shine in the coming years.
“And it was vital that we retained Anthony (Marion) as he has crossed all of the levels with this club from the French championship to Super League. He is the ultimate competitor and an essential member of our squad.
“In Gadwin (Springer) we have a player who has all of the qualities and necessary experience to help us achieve our objectives and I am convinced that under the leadership of Sylvain he can go even further.”
"We have to rebuild French Rugby League into what it should never have ceased to be..."
FFRXIII President Luc Lacoste
story: STEVE BRADY
LET'S EMBRACE THE POSITIVITY
Wigan Chairman Ian Lenagan hails the French revolution
WIGAN WARRIORS Chairman Ian Lenagan says his fellow Super League club-owners have welcomed Toulouse Olympique into the competition “with open arms.”
Lenagan was at Stade Gilbert Brutus for Saturday’s France-England international and he spoke exclusively to Catalan Media about his “delight” at the recent growth of Rugby League in France and the potential offered by the promotion of a second French club to the top-flight (writes STEVE BRADY).
“It’s great news that this city is now part of Super League,” he said.
“I don’t think many people among the ownership of Super League clubs question the value of Toulouse to the competition now.
“I spend a lot of time with fellow owners and I would say that at least 75 per cent, if not 85 per cent, support the fact that Toulouse are coming to Super League.
“It’s a very positive development for our game and once the fans get to know Toulouse I think they will grasp it with both arms, it is a great addition to our game.”
Wigan’s chairman has a second home close to Toulouse and he believes the new Super League side will bring a different dimension to the competition.
He added, “The commercial backing and support that the club has already in one of France’s biggest cities is very impressive.
“I have been to the ‘Table D’Ovale’ which is the regular social meeting of partners and sponsors of the club and what an impressive and prestigious organisation that is. If I had one of those in Wigan I would be utterly delighted, they have the backing of so many influential businessmen and women.
“This club is well run and well-supported and I am sure they will go very well in Super League.
“I think a lot of English Rugby League fans are unaware just how French Toulouse is. It’s a big city, it has a great ambience, it’s known as the pink city because of its terracotta architecture it’s absolutely gorgeous and I think the Wigan supporters, like any other Rugby League supporters, will find the difference of a big city experience very enjoyable.”
Lenagan said he had “no time” for the current mood of negativity in certain sectors of the game and stressed the importance of positivity as the game tries to recover from the financial impact of Covid.
He added, “Rugby League, unfortunately, talks itself down far too much. When you look at the growth here in France, and the increase the whole game has had in viewing figures on television, it has gone up by 10-15 per cent over the last three years.
“The last two seasons have been absolutely awful because of Covid and they have tested us all to the extreme, but when you see that kind of growth in appeal for television broadcasters, and you know that you have a great product on the field, you know you are heading in the right direction.
“I just wish that some people weren’t so negative all of the time about the sport.
“Now we’ve got the fourth biggest city in France joining our competition we should be proud of it and we should be talking our game up.
“I don’t know why we keep knocking ourselves, it’s a mystery to me.”
Lenagan is a regular visitor to Stade Gilbert Brutus and he was looking forward to spending more time in France now Toulouse have been promoted.
“It’s always nice to be here in Perpignan, it’s always a pleasure and particularly today because we are not here supporting Wigan, we are supporting England which is rather nice, no pressure at all.
“And it’s great to see a Wigan player as captain too, we are very proud of John Bateman.
“We have worked very hard with Catalans to engage with them and it’s clear that our fans love coming here and we are also looking forward to visiting Toulouse now.
“There is a positive mood at both of these clubs and it is something we should take on board with open arms.”
FORMER CATALANS DRAGONS half-back Lucas Albert has gone full-circle back into Super League after signing a two-year deal with newly promoted Toulouse Olympique.
The 23-year-old French international was released by the Dragons last year and joined his home town Elite One side Carcassonne but he has made a swift return to the top flight under Sylvain Houles at Stade Ernest Wallon.
“It feels good to be back,” Albert told Catalan Media.
“There is something special happening here in Toulouse and it’s good to be a part of it.
“We all know that the hard work starts now, Super League is another level but we have a great squad already and there is a g really good mood in the group. I’m very happy to be a part of it.”
Albert, who missed out on international selection for Saturday’s France-England test match because he is in the final stages of recovery from a knee injury, will be re-uniting with former his Catalans team-mate and captain following Rémi Casty’s appointment as assistant coach for the Olympians.
Casty, 36, retired as a player following Toulouse’s Grand Final victory over
Featherstone Rovers but he will return to Super League in a coaching role next year.
He told League Express, “It was a very easy decision to join the coaching team at Toulouse.
“This is an exciting time for this club and it is good to be a part of it.
“My role will be to work with the forwards and I can’t wait to get started. I’ve played the whole of my career in the middle of the pitch and I hope I can pass on some of my experience especially to the younger players.
“I will approach the role exactly as I did as a player, I always wanted to get to the very top and it will be the same now, I want to learn alongside Sylvain and help this club succeed in Super League.”
Toulouse have extended the contract of centre Guy Armitage for a further twelve months following an injury-hit season in the championship.
The 29-year-old brother of rugby union star Steffon will remain with Toulouse until at least the end of 2022 following his trial switch from London Broncos.
Toulouse Chairman Bernard Sarrazain said, “We have all been very impressed with Guy’s attitude since he joined us on trial. He has had to work very hard to come back from injury but he has been very good for us on the pitch and he deserves to be with us in Super League next year."
Another Toulouse Olympique star signed on for more if French international prop forward Justin Sangare.
The giant front-rower scored a late try against England in Perpignan last week and Toulouse have been quick to secure an extension to his current contract taking him into the 2022 season.
"I don't know why we keep knocking ourselves, it's a mystery to me."
"I just wish that some people weren't so negative all of the time about the sport."
"WE WANT 30,000-PLUS FANS FOR A FRENCH RL DERBY"
Toulouse chief is aiming big for Super League's newest club
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE have created history by becoming the first-ever French club to gain promotion through the ranks to Super League, but elevation to the top-flight is only the beginning of “an incredible journey” according to ambitious Chief Executive Cedric Garcia, who spoke exclusively to Catalan Media about his plans for the future which include 30,000-plus crowds for derbies with Catalans Dragons.
Founded 84 years ago, Toulouse Olympique is one of the most historic and prestigious names in French Rugby League and as they represent the fourth largest city in France, they are a massive acquisition for the European Super League, offering untold potential for media and marketing opportunities, appeal to blue chip sponsors across the continent and perhaps most importantly a big city attraction to sports tv broadcasters.
After the incredible all-night party at Stade Ernest Wallon following Sunday night’s Grand Final win over Featherstone Rovers and dozens of civic receptions and celebrations, Catalan Media’s STEVE BRADY sat down with the club’s Chief Executive Cedric Garcia (pictured) to discuss the future for Super League’s newest club.
SB: Cedric, after all of the celebrations, what is the immediate task that lies ahead for Toulouse Olympique.
CG: "What an incredible moment for our club and the game as a whole. Sunday night will go down in history and the players, the staff, sponsors and everyone involved with the club deserve to celebrate and congratulate one another after such an amazing achievement.
“After working so hard for so many years we have finally achieved our goal, but it is not the end, this is the beginning for this club and we have already got our plans in place for next season and beyond.
SB: How have you coped with no home games for almost two full seasons?
CG: “It’s been a strange period, no activity on the pitch here in Toulouse but we have been busier than ever.
“Extra transport arrangements, countless communications between the RFL and other teams in the championship, constant monitoring of the Covid quarantine situation, and of course the players and coaching staff were available to help us with business and sponsorship events.
“Over 500 days without a home game would test anyone but I am very proud with the way we have turned the situation around and tried to use it to our advantage.
“We have had to stay engaged with our supporters and we were delighted to have almost seven thousand at the semi-final and then over nine thousand for the final because they haven’t seen us for so long, and we had a big party after the game, with our President, coach Sylvain Houles, his players, myself and staff spending hours with our loyal supporters. It was quite a night!”
SB: Was there ever any danger of the club not completing season 2021?
CG: “We’ve travelled 40,000 kilometres this year which is huge physically and financially, we are close to half a million euros’ spend on chartered aircraft to cope with Covid protocols.
“Without disrespecting Toronto, they folded because they couldn’t cope with this
situation so it’s important that people fully understand what we have had to do.
“I know we are a competitive sports organisation with rivals within a championship so I realise we will attract criticism, it’s only natural from rivals, but to complete 14 fixtures (13 + London’s no-show) in a 21-match season, in the circumstances is incredible.
“This club has been pushing for over 20 years to get to where we are now and we fully deserve to be in this position. This year has pushed us more than any other but there was never any doubt that we would get through.
“There was talk early on that we would have to spend maybe two months in England and the directors gave their support, even know they were aware of the incredible financial and human consequences.
“The players were on board, the coaches were ready to do whatever it takes but thankfully it didn’t happen.
“We could have easily folded this year just like Toronto and let everybody down but we didn’t.
“We coped with massive costs and zero revenue from home games, not being allowed to develop our supporter base or allowing our sponsors to attend games and also re-imbursing money where it has been necessary.
“When you lose your home games you tend to disappear a bit so we are trying to work with the media and our sponsors to help promote the club. It’s a struggle, it’s difficult at any time for all professional sports but when you haven’t played a home game for so long it really is a challenge.”
SB: How are you going to encourage supporters to watch you in Super League next season?
CG: “We are trying to communicate as widely as possible, we want people from the whole Rugby League region to come. We are working with all of the professional clubs in different sports and we will have marketing events at Stade Toulouse (French rugby union giants who share Stade Wallon with T.O.) games and hold promotions in the city centre.
“Our mascots will be out and about, we will hand out flyers to all potential supporters, our club shop will be open, we will have P.A. announcements and advertisements on big screens, and we are doing this with other sports like Handball and football.
“Our approach is to be a little bit different, to try to innovate and change the attitudes between the codes of rugby.
“If you are hoping to attract new supporters to the game you cannot continue to do the same old thing, you have to be innovative.
“We have good relationships with the media but we are aware that we need to invest in marketing so we spent thousands of euros on advertising and promotion for the semi-final and final, plus further investment from our partners and sponsors.
“Nobody knows how many supporters will attend next season but what I do know is that we will be making sure that people hear about us.”
SB: Is there a danger of dreaming of taking your eye off the ball after winning promotion?
CG: “Absolutely not, we have planned for this day and those plans are already being put into action.
“It’s professional sport, everything hangs on a result which could go either way but we are professionals and we have to make plans for all eventualities.
“We cannot just wait until Sunday or Monday to start planning for Super League. It is the greatest opportunity this club has ever had.
“We worked hard last year on our application to join Super League following Toronto’s withdrawal and in that proposal we outlined our long term plan and expectations.
“There are so many details but the one thing I think that sticks in my mind and shows our ambition is the target of holding a derby match against Catalans Dragons in 2023 in front of 30,000-plus fans at Toulouse
football stadium. Next year would be too soon but we have really set our sights on this goal.
“This is what we are trying to achieve and we think we can bring this kind of game to Super League.
“We are not being promoted to Super League and spending the next five years trying to avoid relegation. If you know anything about our chairman (Bernard Sarrazain) he is not this kind of guy. He always wants to improve and push forward and this is just a step along the way.
“Toulouse is that kind of city, it aims big and it achieves big, it’s an exciting and attractive city and we think we can add another dimension to Super League.”
SB: What did you think about the comments of rugby legend Shaun Edwards (the most decorated player in Rugby League and current French rugby union defence coach) recently? He was very supportive of your club’s ambitions.
CG: “Shaun Edwards is a legend as a player and now a coach in both codes. Of course, to read his comments in League Express last week it gives us energy.
“That people of his calibre can see the wider picture is such an inspiration to us. When I read his fantastic words and everyone at the club heard what he said, it hit home that someone with so much knowledge and experience can understand what we are trying to do and what the potentials are for Toulouse Olympique.
“It’s incredible support from an incredible sportsman and he will be made extremely welcome if he wants to come to future games here.”
SB: What could be the benefits of your close relationship with French union champions Stade Toulousain?
CG: “Working alongside S.T. here at the Wallon you suddenly realise what a massive force they are. All the doors open when they raise their voice, they have built a huge and powerful network of support in and around the city.
“It’s really impressive to be so close to them and we are learning all the time. For example they recently had a full-house for the Clermont game and the price of the tickets went up to 80 euros, without any hospitality, and the cheapest seats were 25 euros and they couldn’t sell enough of them.
“I know tickets are expensive in the UK but in France, that is a lot of money, and it’s full to the roof.
“This is a massive sporting city and we want to be a major part of it.
“I go to as many ST games as possible to see what we can learn, studying their set-up, it might sound a bit pretentious but I am already looking at ways in which we might do things better.
“Their operation is fantastic, from game-day management to traffic control, security and everything outside of the stadium.
“We can take a lot from their organisation and they have been very generous with their co-operation.
“We were getting together as coaching and playing groups until Covid hit and as soon as it goes away I know we will continue to develop that relationship.
“It’s a brand new thing for the two codes of rugby and as I have said, we like to be innovative.
“If you stop, you’re dead. You have to keep moving with new ideas and positivity.
“I hope that people can now see what we are trying to do here, this city is vibrant, positive and forward-looking and that is exactly the kind of club we intend to be.”
"We need to do the basics right but it is in our DNA to throw the ball around like Puig Aubert in
WE KNOW WHEN TO TURN IT ON
STEVE BRADY speaks to France RL coach Laurent Frayssinous ahead of Saturday's Test Match against England
TONY GIGOT will face a hero’s return to Stade Gilbert Brutus if, as expected, he leads out France as captain for the first time for their international clash with England on Saturday.
The 30-year-old former Catalans Dragons star who helped his current club Toulouse Olympique reach promotion to Super League last week is the prime choice to lead a re-jigged France team hit by injuries to stars Ben Garcia, Julian Bousquet and Theo Fages.
But coach Laurent Frayssinous isn’t worried about the gaps in his squad and he insists the French team will be competitive against Shaun Wane’s England team.
He told Catalan Media: “We are all very excited and looking forward to the game. After the disappointment of the postponement of the World Cup we targeted this game as an objective to begin our preparations for the tournament next year.
“Our players will definitely be in the right frame of mind to take on England on Saturday. It’s been a long time since we played each other, too long, and even though we have a few important players out I can tell that the squad is up for this match.
“The missing players have plenty of experience between them so we may miss that during the game but there are some top-quality young French players who will be in the side.
“These players have performed incredibly well this season for Catalans Dragons and Toulouse and they are very keen to show what they can do at international level.”
Frayssinous is a former coach of the Dragons and he knows how special it will feel for his new captain to lead France in Perpignan.
He said, “Tony has had a great season with Toulouse, he is the most-capped player for France.
“It will be an emotional return to Stade Brutus for him and also Eloi Pellissier, another former Catalans player, and I hope the people of Perpignan turn out to support them both and their fellow French players.
“It is up to us now to perform on the day and show England exactly what we are made of.”
Frayssinous said he appreciated the interest from overseas in seeing a stronger French national team and he accepted the pressure on his squad to perform against England at the weekend.
He said, “We are building something special here in France at the moment and that has to be reflected at national level.
“If you look at the work done by Steve McNamara at Catalans, the investment in youth and the decision to play young French players at the very highest level this year, it has a huge impact on the French squad.
“The fact that Toulouse will be playing Super League next year also gives confidence to members of the squad that they are good enough to compete with the very best.
“Last week we saw two fantastic Grand Finals involving Catalans and Toulouse and the ‘big-game’ experience the players have gained is invaluable.
“At the moment, everything seems to be going right for Rugby League in France so it is up to us now to show what the French team can do and this is the main goal for this game, to show that we are building and improving.
“There is a World Cup ahead of us, and hopefully one in France three years later, and everyone is excited about their international prospects.”
On the subject of a French Rugby League revival, Frayssinous paid tribute to a friend and former team-mate, adding, “I am very proud to see a French coach back in Super League, especially with such a prestigious cub as Toulouse Olympique.
“I have known Sylvain Houles for a very long time, we both made our debut for France as players at the same time.
“We are friends and throughout the season we share a lot of our thoughts and I really admire the way he likes the game to be played.
“Like all coaches, we need to do the basics right if you are going to have any chance of winning but on the back of that, Sylvain is a very smart coach and he likes to do things differently. He is French, like me, and although we have to play the long game the temptation is always to throw the ball about like Puig Aubert in the 1950s.
“You can see that at Toulouse and that is a breath of fresh air for the game. It will be very exciting to see them in Super League next season, I think they will bring something new and different.
“As French coaches you have to keep a rein on it and decide when it is correct to do it in a game.
“When I was coach at Catalans I really felt that the crowd wanted us to play with flair and entertain because that is the way we do it in France.
“But what Sylvain has shown this year is that you can combine that inner steel and professionalism with the desire to chip-and-chase and throw cut-out passes. It is a difficult balance to strike but Sylvain seem to have done it and I hope we can do the same on Saturday against England.
“It’s in us, it’s in our DNA, but it is all about striking the balance. We have to be in that arm-wrestle competing set for set for dominance in the ruck.
“You have to manage both and decide when it is time to turn it on, forget about the scoreboard and cut loose.”
RUGBY LEAGUE NEEDS TO
OPEN UP, OR DIE...
The President of French Rugby League opens up to STEVE BRADY
THE PRESIDENT of French Rugby League is on a mission to “open up” the sport to the rest of the world and he wants to put an end to the bitterness and divisions of the past.
Speaking exclusively to Catalan Media after Toulouse Olympique’s 51-12 championship semi-final victory over Batley Bulldogs, FFRXIII chief Luc Lacoste said he wanted to heal historic rifts within the game, link up with the leaders of the sport in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and work with rugby union and other sports to push Rugby League into a bright new future.
“I have always believed that French Rugby League will be the future of Rugby League in the world,” said Lacoste.
“Maybe I am a little romantic, but what have we seen this week, such beautiful matches with wonderful energy, passion and pride at Stade Gilbert Brutus on Thursday and today seven thousand people for a semi-final here in Toulouse is a wonderful reality.
“Two teams, two league-leaders, two Grand Finalists, it is perhaps the greatest opportunity French Rugby League has ever had and we are determined to seize the day.”
Lacoste took over the Presidency of the FFRXIII last December following a period of turbulence under previous chief Marc Palanques, who ended up in a legal battle with the French national side’s captain Jason Baitieri, which was the latest in a series of disputes between professional clubs and the ruling body which have rumbled for decades.
The new President is determined to heal those wounds but he is also on a wider mission to bridge historic divides between the rugby codes and incorporate new ideas from other sports and businesses.
Lacoste is a former President of Perpignan’s Top 14 union club USAP and he is tired of old divisions. He said, “I cannot stress this enough, we need to open up.
“We have to open up and work together. If people in Australia think they are the only people in the world who play Rugby League then the game will die.
“I think we are the leaders of an opening up for the game and it is so exciting because there is genuinely a renaissance happening here in France.
“I come from a background of rugby union and what we are seeing in Toulouse now is a bridge between the two codes.
“We need to keep building that bridge to encourage more young players to take up the sport.
“If you tell a child he has to play this way or that way, with different rules, he will drop the rugby ball and pick up a football.
“This old war doesn’t mean anything any more in the modern world. What is the point of dwelling upon the past, we need to turn the page, go forward and open up.”
“This old war doesn’t mean anything any more in the modern world. What is the point of dwelling upon the past, we need to turn the page, go forward and open up.” LUC LACOSTE
Lacoste has drafted in leading French business and sports executives to support his bid to hold a Rugby League World Cup in France in 2025, part of his initiative to “open up” Rugby League.
He said, “I have always tried to learn from and incorporate other sports and external sources. One of my first jobs when I took over as president was to appoint the former Managing Director of the Roland Garros tennis organisation and head of the French tennis Federation.
“He is working alongside me to bring a Rugby League World Cup to France along with another new colleague, the former chief of La Poste (the French Post Office) who has vast experience in handling massive events, he also managed the French football team’s participation in the Euros.
“We need people like this, we need to open up, it is not our sport, it is everyone’s. We will never go forward unless we open up to other people, we cannot keep this sport to ourselves just because we love it so much. It doesn’t belong to us it belongs to everyone and that is my main message as we move forwards towards a World Cup.
“We have seen tonight hundreds of Catalans Dragons supporters in Toulouse singing their songs. It means there are no frontiers or divisions any more, not between clubs or sports or nationalities or genders.
“Today we saw our game played in a stadium famous for being the home of the best club in French rugby union, this is a brand new era and we need to open up to others in this way.”
Lacoste is looking forward to the international fixture in Perpignan later this month which he said will be another example of Rugby League opening up.
He added, “On the 23rd of October we will have France against England, the first full international in this country with a women’s match and then the men.
“French Rugby League is more inclusive than ever, and the message we want to tell the world is that we are so proud of our sport but we want to share it with everyone. It is the most inclusive game of them all.
“I do believe we are at the stage where we can begin to manage a new Rugby League.
“When I speak with Australian or English people or with members of the ERL (European Rugby League) or IRL (International Rugby League) I’m sure sometimes they think ‘he is crazy’ but I am just trying to say ‘look guys, wake up, we have to open up, everywhere.’“I am a missionary on a mission with French Rugby League and I will be spreading the word in Australia very soon.
“I believe Rugby League is brilliant, the best sport in the world, but if we are truly going to achieve our rightful position we need to open up.”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex (who lives close to Perpignan) has been invited to attend Saturday’s Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford.
The Government-leader contacted Dragons’ President Bernard Guasch immediately following last week’s semi-final win over Hull KR offering his congratulations and support for Catalans in Manchester.
Catalans’ media department went into overdrive following their semi-final victory over Hull KR, the club’s Twitter account which has 36,000 followers received over four million views last Thursday evening.
The Grand Final will be screened live in France by beIN Sports, in Australia and New Zealand by Fox Sports and in Catalonia by Barcelona-based broadcasters Esport 3.
Images of Catalans’ historic night at the Brutus were shown on nationwide tv by French channel Canal Plus and in sports magazine L’Equipe.
RUGBY LEAGUE legend Shaun Edwards has gone back to his childhood as a supporter of the game from the terraces and he couldn’t be happier.
The most decorated player in the game is enjoying every minute of his time as a fan of Super League-leaders Catalans Dragons after moving to live in the south of France in his new role as Defence Coach for the French rugby union team.
“It’s great being a fan again,” Edwards told Catalan Media. “No pressure, no expectations, just 80 minutes of brilliant Rugby League, we love it.
“I try to have a little chat with the French supporters but my wife and I spend most of the game chasing our daughters around the stadium.
THE FAMILY GAME
“The girls don’t watch much of the rugby but there’s such a wonderful family atmosphere in the ground with many children to play with that they love coming to games.
“It’s like a lovely evening out with the family and at the same time 80-minutes of full-throttle action on the pitch, it’s great.”
Edwards wears his flat cap to as many home games in Perpignan as he can and he fits in perfectly with the berets and baguettes at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
He said, “It’s a great atmosphere, what I can sense is a lot of fans who are very proud of their team and so they should because the challenges that Catalans have faced, with extra travelling because of Covid and all of the other demands physically and financially on the club, it’s almost a miracle that they have achieved the league-leaders’ shield.
“And it’s good to be sitting among French supporters and watching the way in which they are appreciating their team’s efforts it is a joy to see.
“Don’t forget, it’s still a very young club and all of this success is new to supporters so there is such a positive attitude in the stadium.
“And let’s hope we have another new club very soon in Super League in Toulouse Olympique.
“I’m loving my time as a fan on the terraces in Perpignan and can’t wait for there to be a derby with Toulouse.”
THE MAN UNITED OF SUPER LEAGUE
Edwards said the most impressive part of Catalans’ success so far this season is the way in which the team refuses to be beaten.
He added, “On many times they have been behind in games and found a way to win. The endurance and the never-say-die attitude of the players and coaching staff is there for all to see.
“I liken it to Manchester United under Alex Ferguson where they always seemed to go behind and find a way to win with a couple of late goals.
“It’s a special quality and while it might be frustrating for supporters early on, If you can finish games strongly you’re in the right place.”
Edwards isn’t alone in his appetite for action at the Brutus, he was spotted alongside former Wigan and Great Britain team-mate Andy Gregory last week among the blood and gold flags in the Bonzoms Stand.
He said, “It was good to have Andy here the other week for the Leigh game. He was here with his wife on holiday in northern Spain and I spotted him walking around the stadium so we sat together to watch the game.
“He loved the atmosphere and he was very impressed with the Dragons, the size and shape of the players and the way they performed. Nobody knows the game more than him.
“Andy was a special, special talent, the greatest exponent of the delayed pass either short or long that I have ever seen in Rugby League or union.
“It takes some nuts to hang onto that ball and time your pass to perfection, you’ve got to be very brave.”
VIVE LE PRESIDENT
Another brave character at the Brutus is Dragons’ President Bernard Guasch, according to Edwards.
He said, “It must be very satisfying for the club’s President and the directors and sponsors to see success coming after all of the investment and hard work in creating the club.
“I do hope everyone in Perpignan is buying Mr Guasch’s sausages and they are flying off the shelves like they should be.
“It is great to see a bloke who has backed Rugby League to the hilt, he has been a player and a supporter and he has ploughed his own money into creating this club. How satisfying must it be for him and his Directors now to see the wins coming and hopefully the trophies too.”
Shaun will be too busy plotting trophy success for France XV to attend the France XIII clash against England at Stade Brutus on October 23rd but he believes efforts by Catalans and Toulouse are beginning to pay off for the French RL national side.
He said, “I won’t be at the League international because we will be in training camp preparing to face Argentina, Georgia and then the All Blacks which is obviously a huge game for us.
“But it would be good to see the French RL side competitive against England and I think it is coming thanks to the great work at the Dragons which will pay off in the long-term for young French League players.
“To improve yourself you have to play at a higher level to stretch yourself. The young players who have been brought into Catalans’ first team have now got experience of what it takes to play the game at the highest level in the northern hemisphere.
“You can’t buy that experience. You will only improve as a player when you face opponents who are better than you. You learn very quickly what it takes to be as good as them.
“To improve, you have to be made uncomfortable. To train and play at a higher level, virtually all of the time you have to feel uncomfortable. It isn’t easy.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
"Trust me, when I was 17, playing for Wigan at Craven Park or Featherstone away during the miners’ strike when all of those lads were skint, it was very uncomfortable for everyone.
“These players needed to win to feed their families so to say it was uncomfortable would be an understatement.
“I remember going to Hull KR once and they had a great team at the time who would make life very uncomfortable for you. That was the first of many adjustments to the shape of my nose and I also lost a few teeth that day.
“Young players learn lessons quickly when life is made uncomfortable for them.”
THE ULTIMATE CODE-BREAKER
Edwards, a former junior captain for England at union and League at the same time, is uniquely placed to appreciate the recent developments in Toulouse where the relationship between the codes is growing.
He said, “In rugby union terms, Toulouse is probably the biggest club in the world.
“It’s also one of the richest clubs in the world and bringing the name Toulouse back into Rugby League just brings a bit of magic with it.
“If they do get into Super League I’m sure they will get great support, it’s a fabulous sports-mad city and it’s very exciting times.
“I think it’s absolutely brilliant to see Stade Toulousain and Toulouse Olympique working together and sharing the same stadium.”
Ancient divisions do not concern Edwards, who added, “I’m a rugby man, I love both codes, and what people probably don’t realise is just how popular rugby is in the south of France.
“I haven’t seen many soccer balls since I’ve been here. We take the kids to the park and there’s no-one playing football, it’s all rugby.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s rugby a Quinze (15) or Treize (13), the kids don’t care, they are just running around with a rugby ball in their hands.”
A FRENCH FUTURE?
So the future for French ‘rugby’ looks bright, but what of the future for nouveau-Frenchie Monsieur Edwards? He admits to having teething troubles settling into a new life in France but his family has now settled into the lifestyle and culture.
He added, “It was difficult at first bringing daughters aged just three and six years old. We lived in rented accommodation at first and the girls found it difficult settling at school and making friends.
“But we’ve bought our own place now and the girls are loving it, they’ve made many friends and it’s great to see them chatting away happily in French.
“Sometimes you just have to stick in and be adaptable and durable, a bit like a rugby player, and the rewards will come.
“I’ve got two and a half years left on my contract with French rugby union and I’m really enjoying helping the squad improve. We’re about to go the next stage now, which is the most difficult, and that is winning things.
“That is the challenge for us and we are working very hard to get to that level.
“It’s the same for Catalans too. So much hard work has gone into getting them where they are today, the next step is to win some trophies.
“As for my future, I’m not looking that far ahead. I’m loving my time down here working with the national team and at the same time I am getting a lot of pleasure from being a Rugby League supporter again.”
LAST WORD ON WIGAN COACHING TURNAROUND
Finally, Shaun Edwards said he would speak “for the last time” about his decision to walk away from a coaching role at Wigan Warriors.
Edwards spoke exclusively to Catalan Media about the aborted appointment with his hometown club after he initially agreed to become head-coach for the 2020 season.
“I thought this had all died down,” Edwards said, “But it came up again a couple of weeks ago.”
The 54-year-old France rugby union defence coach was prompted by recent comments from Warriors’ Chief Executive Kris Radlinski (following a Fans’ Forum at the DW Stadium) who said he thought Edwards had ‘let the chairman down more than people know.’
But Wigan legend Edwards responded, “I’ve had a lot of stick in Wigan since I made my decision and so have members of my family and at the time I thought it best to leave it alone.
“But it came up again recently following a Wigan fans’ seminar and there were comments from the club about the issue so I think I should put it firmly to bed.
“I have been asked many times why I am not the current coach at Wigan and there is a very simple reason: if you cannot select your own staff, are you the head coach?”
Edwards had agreed to become Wigan coach in 2018 but could only join the club once his commitments in rugby union were complete. He asked the Warriors to put contracts together for support staff prior to his appointment but he maintains no efforts were made.
He added, “I wanted to be the Wigan coach and I asked for certain personnel to be appointed alongside me but the club made no effort to contact those people for so long that it became clear to me that I couldn’t do the job.
“How can you be a head coach if you cannot select your own staff?
“The club hadn’t even made a phone call for four months to the people I had put forward so I asked the agent who was in charge of the deal to send a message that I wasn’t going to go to Wigan.”
EDWARDS: "I'M A RUGBY MAN, I LOVE BOTH CODES"
League or union, it doesn't matter to Shaun Edwards, who is loving his time with France RU while indulging his passion for League as a new-found fan of Catalans Dragons
Interview: STEVE BRADY
"Trust me, when I was 17, playing for Wigan at Craven Park or Featherstone away during the miners’ strike when all of those lads were skint, it was very uncomfortable for everyone..."
STEVE McNAMARA is hoping for a Magic cure to Covid blues for Rugby League this weekend as he prepares his squad for a top-two shoot-out in Newcastle.
The Catalans Dragons coach said that the annual two-day Super League Magic Round couldn’t have come at a better time for a game ravaged both physically and financially by the Covid Virus.
“It’s a real shot in the arm for the game,” the Dragons chief told Catalan Media.
“It’s the first time since Covid struck that we can have a big-game experience in front of a significant crowd and I know everyone here is looking forward to it.”
Table-topping Catalans take on reigning champions St Helens on Saturday and McNamara said his players can’t wait for the match.
He added, “It’s clearly a big game, one against two, at an unbelievable stadium with fans from different clubs in a party atmosphere and it brings the best out in people.
“When we get on that aeroplane and the bus up to Newcastle I know it will feel like a big final weekend.
“It’s what everybody needs right now in Rugby League.”
Catalans were clobbered by Covid for the first time this season two weeks ago and were forced to postpone their trip to Warrington after four positive Covid tests at the club.
Catalans were clobbered by Covid for the first time this season two weeks ago and were forced to postpone their trip to Warrington after four positive Covid tests at the club.
“It can strike any time,” said McNamara, “And it’s really hit the game hard but thankfully no-one was seriously ill here and hopefully it won’t happen again for the rest of the season.”
McNamara said injuries and Covid complications had hit every Super League side this season but there had been hidden benefits for his Dragons squad.
He added, “Every club is having the same issues at different times. We were pretty consistent in our team selection in the first half of the season, we were in a good position and relatively injury-free but it was inevitable with the demands of this year that we would have to make changes.
“We’ve had so many young players making their debuts, Mathieu Cozza being the latest one for last week’s Salford game, and the hidden bonus of having this injection of youth into the side is the energy and positivity they bring to the team.
“You can see the young boys want to take their chance and it’s great to see, the team has really benefitted and the club will be better off for it in the future.
“Of course, come the business end of the season, most managers will want to have all of their senior players back in position but it might not be possible for everyone.
“Whoever wins the Super League this year needs a pat on the back, it has genuinely been the toughest competition of them all, for so many reasons.
“It’s building up to a massive finish in front of a big crowd at Old Trafford and we’ll have a taste of that this weekend with the Magic Round.”
LET'S GIVE THE FANS SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT
Catalans chief calls for Magic cure
to Covid blues for Rugby League
By Steve Brady
ROMAIN'S DONE ROAMING
HOME IS where the heart is for Romain Navarette, after a surprise switch from London Broncos to championship rivals Toulouse Olympique (writes Steve Brady).
The well-travelled 27-year-old French international prop-forward has made 11 moves (including loans) in his nine-year career so far but he says he is now happily settled back in his motherland – Romain has done roaming.
“Yeah, I’ve been around a bit,” he told Catalan Media, “And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it but I’m glad I am back home now.”
Navarette has signed a two-year-deal with the high-flying Toulouse club who are unbeaten this season in a disjointed campaign without home fixtures so far because of Covid travel restrictions.
“It’s a real nightmare for everyone at the moment,” said Navarette.
“The last couple of years in the UK has been difficult with the Covid situation because it is difficult to keep in touch so I thought it was the right time to come home and spend some time with family.
“I’m very grateful to the London club, the boys and the staff there understood my situation and they were all really good with me and this decision was nothing at all against the Broncos.
“It wouldn’t matter if I was still at Wigan winning trophies I would still have felt the same way and come home.”
Navarette brings Grand-Final-winning experience from his time at Wigan Warriors (2017-20) and has had stints at Catalans Dragons, Wakefield and Swinton before moving to London at the beginning of this year. His early years were at Pia and Limoux in the French championship before he tried his hand in England with Hemel Stags.
It’s quite a roll-call for a relatively young player and it’s no surprise that he knows some of his new team-mates in Toulouse.
He said, “I was so pleased that Toulouse asked me to join them because I know quite a few of their players, I’ve played with Tony Gigot, Eloi Pelissier and Rémi Casty at Catalans and I know a lot of the French players from international duty.
“It always helps when you are joining a new group that you know some familiar faces and I got a really warm welcome at my first training session.”
Navarette is confident that his new club can maintain their push for promotion this year despite the challenges. He added: “We’ve got such a good stadium and brilliant facilities here in Toulouse but I can tell the boys are a little frustrated that they can’t get out there on the pitch in front of the home fans.
“The squad is really strong, they’ve got incredible facilities in a really big city so they have got everything going for them.
“It’s clear that there is a lot of support for the club from partners (sponsors) and they will need that in Super League.
“Everything is in place now, it’s up to us as players to get them into the top-flight.
“The feeling in the group is that they can’t control the Covid situation so there is no point moaning about it. We have to focus on the things that we can control, like our training and our performances.
“I’ve joined a winning team and it’s important that we keep that form if we’re going to have any chance of going up.”
Navarette has followed Toulouse from afar and he says he has been impressed by coach Sylvain Houles’ dedication to keeping a French core to the squad and a French style to the way they play.
He said, “I’d never really met Sylvain, when I was younger I had seen him play a few times for Toulouse, but I could tell he was a really good person. I’m looking forward to learning from him.
“One of the things that I have always admired about Toulouse is the way the club tries to keep the core of its squad made up from French players.
“To be successful today of course you need overseas players but there has always been a strong French influence on the squad, and the way the team plays.”
Navarette believes promotion for Super League could unlock the door for massive potential growth for Rugby League in France.
He said, “Two French clubs in Super League would be massive for the game here.
“At the moment Rugby League isn’t really a big sport across the whole of France but if we had two teams at the top level it would create a great deal of interest in the media.
“A derby between Toulouse and Catalans would put the game back on the map and really encourage youngsters in France to take up the game because they will have greater opportunities and a clearer path to the top of the game.
“Two French teams would be attractive to tv companies and it could see the game being shown to more people here.”
With a World Cup looming this year, and the prospect of the next tournament being held in France, Navarette is keen to add to his seven caps for the French national team.
He added, “My focus is purely on Toulouse and nothing else but I would be really happy to represent France again in this year’s World Cup.
“We’ve got a lot more experience in the French squad now and confidence is growing.
“It’s a bit too far ahead to look at 2025 now but what a brilliant boost it would be to have a World Cup in France.
“To have all that support, from friends, family and French people would be incredible and it could take the game to another level.
“It’s been really positive recently reading the comments from the International Rugby League chiefs about growing the game in France.
“And the investment in support for coaching staff at French national level really gives the players a lift. When you add Trent Robinson to the list of people who are preparing for this World Cup it can really inspire you.
“We have to go out there on the field and do the job and it really helps when the training and coaching environment is at a top professional level.
“We’re growing up this French team and we can see clearly what lies ahead in the future. If I can be a part of this year’s World Cup and still be playing at the standard to be involved in 2025 it would be a great way to round off my international career.”
Navarette faces a swift return to his former club as Toulouse take to the air again this coming weekend for their championship clash at London Broncos, the game being shown live online on the RFL's OuRLeague app.
The Olympians will be hoping for a repeat performance of last week's crunch victory over championship rivals Featherstone Rovers.
Toulouse came out on top 23-6 thanks to tries from Dominic Peyroux (2), Justin Sangare and Remi Casty in front of 4.021 supporters at Post Office Road.
“The squad is really strong, they’ve got incredible facilities in a really big city so they have got everything going for them..." said Navarette
THE DIFFERENT DRAGONS
CATALANS COACH Steve McNamara is hoping for a different Dragons’ performance on Friday following a “difficult victory” at Headingley (writes STEVE BRADY).
It’s deja-vu for Leeds Rhinos who travel to Perpignan this week hot on the heels of a 26-8 home defeat to Super League’s table-topping French side but McNamara isn’t planning on a repeat performance.
“We need to sharpen up and learn the lessons of that first half,” he told Catalan Media.
Catalans were 18-8 down at half-time but recovered in the second half to secure a club-record eighth straight league win.
“Of course I’m pleased we won but we can’t play like that again on Friday or it could be a different result completely,” said McNamara.
“We learned to win again in yet another different way, I don’t think we were great particularly with our defence in the first half.
“We conceded far too many metres and the ruck was too loose for us so we got caught and it wasn’t looking good at half-time, we were on the back foot ten points down and a man in the sin-bin.
“I was interested to see how we would react because it was a very different position for us to be in so far this season.
“So that being said I am really pleased that the team put on such a composed second half performance and responded in such a positive manner.”
McNamara said he expected the repeat fixture against Leeds this week to be a totally different game.
“Each game is completely different,” he said.
“We caught Leeds after a busy run of fixtures and I’m sure they will have some fresh bodies back this week and they’ll be ready to go.
“They caused us lots of trouble in certain areas on Friday and we’ve got to look at that in training this week.
“We start from scratch, we forget Friday’s result and we prepare for the next challenge.”
Friday’s clash is the first of a three-match home run for Catalans and McNamara is keen to keep to winning ways to reward the club’s supporters.
He said, “We’ve been on the road a lot this year, the stats say we’ve played 14 games and eleven of them have been away so to get back on home soil is a great feeling.
“Over and above the obvious travel challenges, we now have the chance to play in front of our supporters, partners and sponsors. These people have been desperate to see us play and it’s important that we perform for them.
“We’ve been doing well away from home but we have to keep those same standards when we turn out at Stade Gilbert Brutus.”
McNamara will have scrum-half Josh Drinkwater back from injury for Friday’s game, plus prop Gil Dudson returns from a one-match suspension but he will have to do without the services of James Maloney and Joel Tomkins who both picked up two-match bans for dangerous tackles from last week’s game at Headingley.
He added, “It’s good to have Josh and Gil back because we’ve got a lot of bumps and bruises from the Leeds game, and especially now that we have suspensions.
“It was extremely tough, as expected, and we took some heavy knocks. Julian Bousquet couldn’t return to the field in the first half then we lost Jason Baitieri and Matty Whitley got hurt so we had to dig deep.
“I’m not sure at this stage to what extent those injuries are but it might be a different-looking team that turns out on Friday night.”
Coach McNamara said he was delighted by the renewed contracts for captain Ben Garcia and winger Tom Davies, both of whom have signed on for three more years in Perpignan.
He said, “Both Ben and Tom epitomise what we want from Dragons players, they are both very professional, fully committed and outstanding leaders within the group.
“We’re delighted that they have decided to stay, signing long term contracts which give them some stability and also stability for the club.”
"We can’t play like that again on Friday or it could be a different result completely.” Steve McNamara.
Story: STEVE BRADY
THE FUTURE of international Rugby League lies in France according to the leader of the global game.
IRL Chairman Troy Grant has described the development of the French game as a “strategic must” as he announced the formal bid for a Rugby League World Cup in France in 2025.
Grant, a former Deputy Premier of Australia, spoke to Catalan Media about his vision of “rebuilding France to help England and other northern hemisphere nations grow.”
The game’s leading figure also pledged to use his political connections within governments in France and the UK to push for support for the game at the highest levels.
He said, “I think this is great timing and a real shot in the arm that Rugby League needed both in France and in the north and hopefully with the momentum from a brilliant RLWC21 in England we can finally re-instate International Rugby League back to the esteem it once held.”
The 51-year-old former politician said there was a “great respect” in Australia for Rugby League in France and he expected strong support from down under for the World Cup in 2025, 71 years after the very first tournament took place in the country.
He added, “I know there is a strong respect for the French game in Australia, the fortunes of Catalans and Toulouse in the RFL competitions are followed closely, and with Australians often recruited into those teams there’s a great deal of interest there.
“Australian Rugby league fans are big lovers of the history of the game and the French national team and their contributions in International Rugby League history, known here as the Golden Age, have never been lost or forgotten. There’s real hope down under that France can again rise to that highly competitive level to again thrill us in clashes with the Kangaroos.”
The IRL chairman added with a wry smile: “I think Aussies also like seeing England beaten so if France can triumph more often over them that will also be well received.”
Grant joined the IRL board in February and one of the first items on his agenda was to push for a World Cup in France and he took advice from leading figures in the game before launching an official bid.
He said, “The news of FRXIII officially preparing a business case for the French Government to host the Rugby League World Cup has been extremely well received in Australia.
“The origin of the concept came from South Sydney trio Wayne Bennett, Blake Solly and Shane Richardson who I met soon after coming onto the IRL Board. All three had experience in the Northern Hemisphere from coaching to administration.
“Wayne emphasised that I needed to focus on rebuilding France to a competitive level which would help England and other Northern Hemisphere nations grow. I saw that France was hosting the rugby union world cup in 2023 and the Olympics in ‘24 and I thought a trifecta of world events would appeal.
“I then got to speak to FRXIII Coaching Director Trent Robinson and Wayne more during our time together in Operation Apollo (the group that brought the NRL competition back after Covid) and took Wayne with me to meet the French Counsel General for Sydney Anne Boillon. We made the pitch to her and received some positive feedback and then we started planning.
“The NRL helped me with resources and I made a pitch to the IRL Board just before I became Chairman to move away from our traditional approach to finding hosts for World Cups and to pursue France as a strategic must.
“They agreed and FRXIII President Luc Lacoste was approached to garner his interest and his enthusiasm was infectious and off we went. I’ve loved working with Luc and the Exploratory Committee it’s my favourite meeting of the week.
“Luc has put together a fantastic high calibre local organising committee and they’re now leading the charge with our full endorsement and support.
“I’m incredibly excited and hoping the French Government and all of France will embrace a Rugby League World Cup for France in 2025. The intent of the tournament that Luc has outlined fits perfectly into Rugby League vernacular, a game affordable and accessible for everyone. It’s perfect.
“A World Cup isn’t an event that will come and go, it will leave a legacy of investment not only into the national and local economies but importantly into French Rugby League from junior playing level through to elite. That investment is a critical part of the International Rugby League’s strategic plan and frankly is critical to the future of International Rugby League prosperity.”
THE RUGBY LEAGUE World Cup will return to its birthplace in France if a joint bid by the French Federation and the International Rugby League group is approved by the French government.
The official bid has now been sanctioned by the IRL with FFR President Luc Lacoste describing it as “an incredible opportunity for the whole of Rugby League” with plans for the “largest ever tournament” incorporating a brand new sector for youth teams.
Hopes of a French World Cup were first announced earlier this year in a media briefing by new IRL Chairman Troy Grant but the official bid was only launched last week with news breaking in non-traditional media sources for the 13-a-side code in France.
Headlines appeared in leading French sports magazine L’Equipe and there was even a mention in national French newspaper Le Monde.
The return of the competition to France, 71 years since the very first World Cup was held there in 1954 has raised hopes of a Rugby League renaissance in the country where it was once on the verge of becoming the leading national sport.
The RL World Cup is a French invention, the brainchild of Paul Barriére, a resistance fighter in the second world war who took up the Treiziste cause after meeting the leaders of French RL which had been banned by the Vichy government in collaboration with the occupying Nazi regime.
He was the driving force behind the creation of an International RL board and he spearheaded a hugely successful first tour down under by the French national side in the 1950s when the code was popular in major cities all over France.
A controversial decision not to link up with newly-emerging television companies, combined with in-fighting in French Rugby League, saw the code’s popularity shrink as rugby union snapped up the tv contracts and capitalised on divisions within the Treiziste ranks to emerge as the pre-eminent code of rugby in France.
International Rugby League chiefs are now hoping the 2025 tournament will revive latent support for the game and build upon the growth currently being forged by the success of the two fully professional teams in the country, Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique.
President Lacoste said the future for French Rugby League was “rich with potential” and said the World Cup would “unlock doors” for the game that have been closed for decades.
He added, “This is a major bid that brings together the men's, women's, wheelchair and youth events and at the heart of this great project is a strong message, 'sport for all.'
“This will be reflected in the choice of host cities and regional metropolitan partners, stadia large and small, as well as affordable prices. We will lever the economic and tourist attractiveness of the country as well as a societal and environmental dimension.”
Lacoste is hoping the French government is impressed by the plan to incorporate tourism into the bid, as well as building a social legacy with improved sporting facilities and community links.
He added, “We intend to incorporate the past with the present for a permanent transmission of this heritage to the next generations.”
Among the major appointments for the World Cup bid is the new Executive Director of the Organising Committee Meichel Wiener who has 33 years’ experience as CEO with the French national La Poste group. Joining M Weiner on the committee will be Soisic Le Bourg, an experienced marketing and commercial director and Robert Zarader, an expert in public affairs and communication. They will be supported by former French captain and current secretary general of the federation, Dominique Baloup plus the President, Luc Lacoste.
IRL secretary general, Danny Kazandjian has already met French government officials along with M Lacoste and he is extremely encouraged by the reception they received.
He said, “The IRL has worked very closely with M Lacoste and his team to make the initial presentations to the French government. We are encouraged by their response and have agreed that France are the preferred candidates for the organisation of RLWC2025.
“We continue to support the development of a compelling business plan and presentation to the government, and we believe that for many reasons, France will be able to deliver the largest World Cup ever.”
Catalans Dragons coach Steve McNamara welcomed the news of the official bid and said it would provide inspiration for young French Rugby League players.
He added, “All of the French players at our club are really passionate about playing for their country but more importantly they want the French national team to be competitive again at the top level.
“A World Cup in France would be a huge boost for them and for the whole game over here.
“It’s a really positive step and something that we should all support.”
IT'S COMING HOME
71 years since the very first Rugby League World Cup, it's heading back
"I think this is great timing and a real shot in the arm that Rugby League needed both in France and in the north..."
International Rugby League Chairman Troy Grant
HOME SWEET HOME!
Steve McNamara can't wait to get back to the Brutus after clocking up the air miles
CATALANS DRAGONS are looking forward to some home comforts following tonight’s fixture against Leeds Rhinos at Headingley (writes STEVE BRADY)
Super League’s French high-flyers have been clocking up the air miles so far this season but a forthcoming three-match home run at Stade Gilbert Brutus will be very welcome according to coach Steve McNamara.
He told Catalan Media: “By the time we’ve played Leeds we’ll have had 13 games this season and ten of them have been in England so it will be nice to have the home comforts for a change.
“We’ve found a rhythm and a routine this season with our travel arrangements and found out what works best for us and it has been paying off with the results.
“And we’ve never used travel as an excuse but it is a factor when you’re getting home every week at three or four in the morning after two flights and 80 minutes of Rugby League.
“So fingers crossed, because you never know these days, we’ve got a home run coming up and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Catalans will face a triple trial of Yorkshire sides in Perpignan with successive games against Leeds then Castleford and Wakefield and McNamara said his squad couldn’t wait to run out in front of French supporters.
He added, “First and foremost, the financial side of having home games for this club is paramount, but for the players to run out at the Brutus in front of 5,000 supporters for the first time in a long while it’s going to be very special.”
The table-topping Dragons are on a seven-match unbeaten run but McNamara said that string of victories will face a stern challenge on Friday.
“Leeds are a good team with some outstanding individuals. I’m not sure many teams could cope with the amount of players they have had out so far this season but that is the size of their club.
“They have such depths of resources that they are still able to field competitive teams and give their talented young players the opportunity to break into the first team.
“It looks like they will be at near full-strength against us on Friday and that is the next part of the challenge for us this season.
“We’re looking forward to the game and even more-so to the return the following week at home.”
McNamara reported no injury worries following last week’s Huddersfield game and he expects hooker Alrix Da Costa to be fit and available for selection against Leeds and prop Sam Kasiano is free to play after successfully appealing his one-match ban from the Huddersfield game.
Catalans were heavily penalised by referee Ben Thaler during the match against the Giants for a lengthy series of infringements at the play-the-ball and McNamara said there had been some fine-tuning at training this week to address the issue.
Josh Drinkwater, Jason Baitieri and Gil Dudson were all sin-binned by Thaler and McNamara added, “There were obviously some periods of indiscipline that didn’t hurt us on the scoreboard against the Giants but they might come back to bite us in future games so we’ve had to have a look at that in training this week.
“We gave away far too many penalties and we can’t afford to continue to do that.
He added, “It’s a really fine line, each team is trying to play the ball faster than the opposition and it’s the players’ jobs to try and control the speed of the transition. You try to slow the opposition down as much as you can within the rules of the game and the referee decided we crossed that line too many times.
“He put us on a warning and our decisions on the back of that warning were the wrong ones.
“It looked bad with the series of penalties and three sin-binnings but we just got the balance slightly wrong and we will correct that so it’s not something I’m overly concerned about.
“On the positive side we didn’t concede while we were down to eleven men and our movements defensively were great.
“And we didn’t try to see the game out, Sam Kasiano got a repeat set with a nice kick-chase and on the back of that we created an overlap for Tom Davies to score which was really pleasing to see.”
FORMER CATALANS DRAGONS captain Rémi Casty has announced his decision to retire from playing at the end of this season.
The 36-year-old prop forward joined Toulouse Olympique this year after a 14-year career with the Dragons but he told French media this week: “I think it’s time I hung up my boots but, before then, if I can help Toulouse be successful this year in gaining promotion to Super League it will be an incredible high for me to finish my playing days.”
Dragons coach Steve McNamara added: “Rémi had an incredible stint here at Catalans and apart from a brief spell at the Roosters and now Toulouse he was a one-club man for most of his career.
“He was a leader and a captain of this club for so long, and he’ll go down as the first French player to lift the Challenge Cup at Wembley so Catalans and French Rugby League should be very grateful and proud of his contribution to the game over here.
“Ben Garcia has taken over that role at the club now and for our young players to look up at players like Rémi and Ben it is such an inspiration.
“They can see what can be achieved, you can win trophies, you can play in the NRL, but you have to follow the example of players like Casty and Garcia. It isn’t easy, but if you commit yourself completely like these two have then everything is achievable.”
Garcia signed a new three-year contract with the Dragons at the weekend, and the 28-year-old loose forward said it was “an easy decision” to stay at Stade Brutus.
He added, “I enjoy playing at this club, we have a great squad and great ambitions and I’m looking forward to winning some more trophies for the Dragons.”
Coach McNamara added, “Ben is a tremendous captain and leader who is not only driving himself to new standards but taking the other players along with him.
“He is a hugely positive influence within our club.”
THERE’S A FIRE in the belly of Toulouse Olympique and it is being stoked by the refusal of their championship opponents to travel to France (writes STEVE BRADY).
Coach Sylvain Houles has lifted the lid on the simmering anger among his players at the increasing number of rival teams who have opted out of a trip to Toulouse because of dispensation from the RFL for part-time clubs.
Under current UK Covid control guidelines anyone returning from France has to quarantine for a minimum of five days and the RFL has agreed to allow semi-professional teams to decline to travel.
Bradford, Featherstone, Newcastle and Oldham have already taken up that option and even though London Broncos are a full-time club they refused to travel, with the RFL awarding a 24-0 win to Toulouse and referring the matter to its compliance panel.
“I believe these clubs could have made an effort to come,” Houles told Catalan Media.
“At the end of the day these players have got two jobs and one of their jobs is to play Rugby League but they have chosen not to and it is this kind of attitude that puts the fight into our squad this season.”
It’s that fighting spirit that has put Toulouse top of the championship and despite missing out on invaluable home games Houles believes the attitude of rival clubs will be the biggest boost for his team’s push for promotion to Super League.
“Teams don’t want to come, it’s as simple as that, and they are allowed to decide because they are part-time. They don’t want to take five days off to quarantine when they return to the UK but we have to do this every time we go to England. That’s five days, once a year, when they can still prepare for their next game, and we have agreed to pay for all of the tests they will need.
“We offered the same financial assistance to London but they simply refused to come.
“Those teams don’t want to come here so we can’t count on them. It’s a fact that they don’t know or even care what we are trying to do and we don’t want their pity.
“What we are doing is turning that attitude around and putting it into our training sessions and performances.
“Of course, Covid is responsible for this and we knew that given a choice the part-time teams would not come to France. We can’t rely on those team to help us so we have to help ourselves.”
Houles remains confident that he can guide his club through the stop-start nature of the season and that Toulouse will be pushing for promotion at the end of it.
He added, “At the moment we have four games postponed and they are going to be cancelled because we aren’t going to be able to play them.
“That means we will only be able to play Bradford, Newcastle, Featherstone and Oldham once. We haven’t got many home games left so it’s going to be a very short season.
“We’ll be fine because of the win percentage but from the sports side we wanted to play as many games as possible and particularly in front of a home crowd but no other team is in the championship to do us a favour.
“We’re in a situation where we need to fight, and fight hard, for everything.
“We had to fight in the beginning to re-establish this club in Toulouse and in the past five years that we’ve been playing in England we haven’t been very welcome by the other teams.
“But at the same time we are trying to do everything we can to keep the competition alive so we can achieve our goals.
“We want to look after ourselves and do whatever is in our control to finally achieve our goal which is Super League.”
Houles described the mood among his players as “defiant and positive” despite the challenges of such a disjointed season.
He said, “The mood is good, and we are doing everything we can to keep spirits up but without playing week-in week-out the players can find it difficult.
“I have to say they are being fantastic about all of this, they keep turning up with a smile on their face but underneath that all they want to do is play.
“We are getting used to the situation because we’ve been doing it from the beginning of the season so we’ve developed our systems to make it work in the best way for us. We’ll have a break because nobody wants to play us and then in the build-up to a game you can sense the hunger in the players.
“It could be a danger to have so much time to prepare for games so we have to optimise the time we have.
“We spend more time focussing on fine details and new techniques. You can never be perfect with your moves and your timings but we’re working hard on it and that is how we are dealing with the situation at the moment.
“It’s been working, quite clearly, with the results we have been getting.
“The preparation for our last game against Sheffield was incredible and we took that attitude into the game. It was near-perfect performance until the last ten seconds when Sheffield scored. We have even turned that into a positive because all week at training we have been telling each other that we have to be on it for the full 80 minutes.
“We’re shaping up the same way for the Batley game (Sunday 3pm at the Fox’s Biscuits Stadium) which will be a good challenge for us, they are a good team who are playing well and this is what we need to keep our focus and concentration.”
Another motivational tool for Houles’ squad is the anticipation of a return to their home ground Stade Ernest Wallon.
The Olympians coach said, “I went to see the French Grand Final at the Wallon last week and it takes your breath away. It’s a stunning venue for Rugby League and it’s agonising for the players that they can’t perform on that pitch.
“At the end of the day we have to tell ourselves that one day we will be back there and playing regularly on that fantastic pitch.
“At the beginning of the season it was such a pull for the players but as the competition continues it’s looking more and more unlikely.
“But, again, we have had to turn that around psychologically and say to the players, just imagine winning your way into Super League season at the Wallon, and if it’s not this year then imagine the start of next season in Super League at this incredible stadium.
“They don’t lack motivation, they are all desperate to play at the Wallon.
“To maintain that state of mind we hold as many training sessions as we can on the pitch so they can get used to the surface. I like to change venues for different reasons but turning out at the Wallon seems to bring something out in the players.”
A championship Grand Final would be quite a spectacle at such a venue but Covid complications have delayed any firm plans by the RFL for the end-of-season climax.
Houles added, “The Grand Final venue haven’t been decided yet but hopefully by then we will be able to have visiting teams here.
“Last year the final was a home game for whoever finished top of the league so we have to aim for that possibility but who knows?”
Toulouse and Featherstone Rovers are the current front-runners for the Super League promotion showdown but Houles believes other teams will come into contention as the season progresses.
He said, “When you look at the league table obviously Featherstone are up there with us and they will obviously be fighting all the way. They’ve got a great defence and some real strike players.
“But it’s not a two-horse race, if you fall for that trap you will suffer because you’ve got London, Widnes and Halifax coming up, all very strong treams.
“Some of the sides in the championship have started slowly but they are gathering momentum and it’s a great competition.
“We want to be there at the end of it and we will use every motivation we can get to keep our eyes on that target.”
We're up for the fight!
Sylvain Houles turns the tables on clubs who refuse to travel to France
WHEN LLOYD WHITE first began his Rugby League journey he couldn’t have imagined it would take him from south Wales via Widnes, then on to the south of France and Jamaica (writes STEVE BRADY).
The 32-year-old Toulouse Olympique hooker has joined the Reggae Warriors’ training squad for this year’s World Cup and he couldn’t be happier to complete a “full circle” in the game.
“I’d been thinking about the possibility of playing for Jamaica for the past couple of years,” White told Catalan Media.
“My grandad is Jamaican and my dad is half-Jamaican and I know how proud they would be if I represented the country, particularly in a World Cup.
“I’m coming towards the back end of my career and I might never get the chance again, so when the opportunity arose I jumped at it.”
Cardiff-born White has already played at international level, earning 17 caps for Wales, and while he is very proud of those achievements he feels this next move would fully represent his dual heritage.
He added, “I will be immensely proud to wear that shirt. The ball started rolling a few months ago and I had to get all of my documents together and once I qualified and it all got signed off I was very pleased to be named in the training squad.
“I spoke with the Wales management and I told them where I stood and they understood that it was an opportunity to represent my heritage on my father’s side of the family.”
White said the Jamaican squad was capable of raising a few eyebrows in the international ranks and the first-ever Caribbean team to take part in a Rugby League World Cup will be no pushovers.
He added, “They know what they are about, there is a fantastic group of lads there and they have bonded really well. They’re in training camp right now but unfortunately I can’t take part because of travel restrictions.
“But they are a tight-knit bunch and I can’t wait to link up to help spread the word about Rugby League among the Caribbean nations.
“It’s the first time a Caribbean nation has taken part in a Rugby League World Cup and the recognition that will give the game over there is invaluable.
“It should encourage more youngsters to take up the game when they realise there is a pathway to the highest level.
“I was really fortunate to have been picked for Wales early in my career and I would have liked to have played more for the national side but I was unlucky with the timings of injuries.
“But to be able to come full circle and celebrate the other side of my family heritage by playing for Jamaica would be a pretty perfect way to round off my international career.
“You never know what’s around the corner in Rugby League but that side of things has worked out pretty well for me.”
It’s working out pretty well in Toulouse for White, he’s been at the heart of the French club’s incredible opening run of victories so far in the championship but the former Widnes Vikings reckons the best is yet to come for high-scoring Olympique, especially if Covid travel restrictions are lifted to allow English part-time teams to play in France.
He said, “It’s been a difficult season, we would love to have a bit more momentum and consistency with our games but at the moment it’s just not possible. I’m doing what I can and playing to the best of my ability on the field and I hope I’m contributing to our recent successful run.
“If we did get a shot at Super League we might shock a few people. It’s up to us as players to do our best to gain promotion and we are all very aware of our responsibilities.
“We’re just taking each week as it comes and sooner rather than later we’ll get to play some games at this wicked stadium that we’ve got here.
“The facilities at Stade Ernest Wallon are awesome, everything is top class, and it’s so frustrating that we can’t play there.
“The surface is fantastic and as players we’re very proud to call it our home ground.
“It’s a really modern and progressive regime here at Toulouse, with creative training techniques including yoga and meditation.
“I noticed a few of these things creeping into the English game when I was back at Widnes but Sylvain and his coaching staff have taken it to another level.
“It’s really refreshing for players to learn different ways to improve yourself and each little thing we do has a purpose and a result, I’m really enjoying it.
“It’s a totally different culture and style of training but we’re all buying into it.
“Coming to play in France was something I’d always quite fancied and it’s good to challenge yourself. You should never get too comfortable, it’s only a short career and you have to push yourself as hard as you can.”
From Cardiff to the Caribbean
ARTHUR MOURGUE is the rising star of French Rugby League but the little half-back with the big skills is keeping his feet on the ground despite some dazzling star turns for Catalans Dragons this season.
A cameo side-stepping solo try at Leigh last week put Mourgue back in the spotlight, earning rave reviews from some of the biggest names in the game.
Leeds legend Rob Burrow recently described the 22-year-old Catalans ace as “an incredible talent” and Mourgue was “blown away” by the comment from his all-time hero.
He told Catalan Media: “To hear those words from Rob was a big honour and a dream for me because I was so small as a kid, when I was playing I was always compared to him. I had always been a massive fan so I started looking at the way he played the game and I loved the way he made up for his size by hard work and a strong mental approach.
“We all know how brave he is but it takes a special kind of inner strength to play a game as physical as Rugby League, particularly if you are small, and achieve the incredible things that he has done.
“To see what Rob said about me meant so much because I have always admired him and his approach.”
Rugby League wasn’t originally on the agenda for Mourgue, born outside traditional Treiziste heartlands in Saint-Etienne near Lyon. His father was a golf professional and there were many sports available to young Arthur.
He said, “Even as a toddler I was very sporty and I tried everything. But I had my first game of Rugby League was when I was four years old and there has been no turning back.
“I tried rugby union of course but I knew straight away which one I preferred.
“The easiest choice at that time would have been union because the game is so strong in France but I was always happier playing League and it’s really important to love what you’re doing and I never want to stop.
“I started at four and I haven’t stopped since. I tried to play golf too, and I’m still trying!”
Mourgue quickly graduated to the esteemed Rugby League production line at SO Avignon, which has developed so many top French players including Catalans captain Ben Garcia and Tony Gigot.
He added, “Like many other players I ended up playing at Avignon, which is a great club and it seems to draw in all of the Rugby League players from the many different regions.
“The coaches at Avignon are very experienced and they have helped to develop the careers of many top French players.”
Arthur rose quickly through the ranks despite his diminutive stature. Taking inspiration from Burrow and other top players, he developed his own unique style of unlocking opposition defences.
He added, “When I was young I always looked up to Jonathan Thurston in the NRL and of course Thomas Bosc at Catalans. I used to watch him playing for the Dragons as a little kid and he was my model, I dreamt of playing the game like he did.
“And now I’m very lucky to have players like Sam Tomkins, James Maloney and Josh Drinkwater to learn from. I watch them all the time and I’m trying to pick up some of their skills and whenever I ask them anything they always have lots of time to talk to me and explain things.
“I’ll take as much advice as I can from players who have so much experience at the very top of the game.
“Among today’s players I like the Shaun Johnson style of play, it’s so good to watch and very effective. But I don’t have to look too far to admire some of the best players in the game because they are here in Perpignan, Sam has got crazy skills.
“You learn so much from the best, and I think I have my own style too. I always like to run with the ball in front of me and push it left and right, just to test the players in front of me, and I enjoy picking the right moment when and where to go. That has always been my style of play.
“I look for pockets of space or maybe a tired defender, anything really that can create a chance for the team.”
Mourgue is playing with a huge smile on his face, normally emerging from the bench during a game to fill in as a half, full-back or hooker, and he is happy with whatever role he is asked to do.
He said, “It was a massive honour when Steve McNamara gave me the number one shirt at the Dragons this year. Like every young player, your goal is to reach a number between one and 13 and I’m very happy with number one. Of course, we all know that Sam Tomkins plays full-back every weekend but having the number one shirt is a message to me that the coach believes in me.
“I have always played in the halves, it seems my natural position. At the same time I trust the process and I understand that I have to work hard every day to get a regular place in that 13.
“I think I am definitely a half-back or full-back but at the moment, with all the talent we have in the team, I am happy to fit in anywhere, at hooker or on the wing. Steve hasn’t selected me at prop-forward yet so I will have to work harder in the gym.”
That hard work has not got unnoticed. Catalans’ Performance Manager Richard Hunwicks has described Mourgue as “pound for pound” one of the strongest players at the club.
“Arthur has worked incredibly hard on his strength,” said Hunwicks: “And this contributes to his explosive ability on the field.
“Having worked with both Rob Burrow and Arthur I would say they have many similarities and we all hope Arthur can go on to achieve even a fraction of Rob’s accomplishments.”
Mourgue isn’t the only young Frenchman emerging through the ranks at the Dragons these days, his good friend Matthieu Laguerre has also hit the headlines with impressive performances on the wing.
Mourgue said, “The youth system at Catalans is second to none and I’m very proud of my mates. I’ve played for many years alongside Matthieu and it seems incredible that we are now playing together in the first team in Super League. When I turn around on the pitch and we see each other it seems almost unbelievable, I hope it shows to other young players that you can make it if you work as hard as possible and listen to coaches and senior players.
“It’s what you need to become better. It is a very young reserves team that punches above its weight in the French championship and it is producing some really talented players. When you’re young and you are made to feel uncomfortable and face up to some big blokes and experienced players, It’s the right way to make you better as a player.
“For sure, I am really enjoying playing at the moment, it has been a good year for the Dragons so far and I think the squad is gaining in confidence but at the same time we have to keep our feet on the ground and maintain focus. If you look too far ahead you will trip up.”
CATALANS DRAGONS will travel to Castleford on Thursday without key playmaker Sam Tomkins and top try scorer Tom Davies.
Both players have been selected in the England squad for Friday’s Combined Nations All Stars match and will train this week with the national squad, leaving them unavailable for the Super League clash at Wheldon Road.
Tomkins and Davies face an incredible 36-hour return road-trip by car to link up with the England squad because suitable flights were unavailable because of Covid precautions.
Coach Steve McNamara told Catalan Media: “We didn’t want to put Sam and Tom on commercial flights at this stage because of the virus and a private flight wasn’t an option so they are driving back to the UK.
“It’s not an ideal option to have two of your best players sitting in a car for 18 hours, both ways, but they are desperate to play for England and this was the best and safest way of them doing so. It’s a massive honour to play for and represent your country and I fully understand their commitment.”
McNamara said he was delighted for Davies who could earn his first England cap on Friday night: “We’re really proud of Tom,” he said.
“When we signed him we knew he was coming back from that horrific injury at Wigan and you’re never quite sure how a player will recover, physically and mentally from such an ordeal.
“But when I first met Tom I instantly understood his enthusiasm and commitment, and I knew he would overcome all of that.
“To develop as he has done this season is a real credit to him, it is clear that he’s really happy in his environment, living in France at the Catalans Dragons and it is showing in his performances.
“He is getting to play a style that suits him and he’s doing a great job of it and fully deserves his call-up to the England squad.”
Former England head-coach McNamara has had to deal with other international responsibilities so far this season thanks to several of his players being selected for training camps with the French squad for the coming World Cup but he agrees it is a price worth paying.
He said, “It’s always a challenge during a World Cup year for Catalans, and also now for the Toulouse team, because so many of the French squad come from our two clubs and now we have a couple of players in the England team so we lose them for the Castleford game but as we’ve seen recently with Matthieu Laguerre and Arthur Mourgue, we’ve got two boys there who are fully equipped to come in and take their spots and deservedly so.
“We will be increasingly turning to our young French players over the coming period and even though many of them have just completed a really difficult season in the French championship we will need to manage their time carefully to ensure they are ready to step in and fulfil their commitments for the club in Super League.
“It’s the next step now for them.”
McNamara said the weekend’s lay-off because of Covid difficulties at Leeds Rhinos had helped ease injury problems within the squad at Stade Gilbert Brutus, but he would have preferred to have completed the fixture.
He added, “We all wanted to play against Leeds, and even though a week off does help with players recovering from injuries, if you look further ahead the schedule is extremely busy from now on in, we would have rather played the Leeds game if possible.
“We got some bumps and bruises from our last game at Leigh so it was a little different at training. We allowed some of our fully-fit players who have been putting in eighty minute performances to have some time off.
“Players who are at the recovery stage of their injuries have been monitored and it’s been a really mixed week with rehab and treatment for some with others training in groups.
“Our first session as a group was on Saturday morning and we came together really well, the players seem happy and they are looking forward to their next game.
“Sam Kasiano and Gil Dudson are back up for selection again so we’ve got some decisions to make on players this week.”
McNamara was pleased to see his team remain top of Super League while out of action at the weekend but he said they face some tough challenges with a congested fixture list looming.
He said, “After Castleford we play Huddersfield away on Thursday night then Monday we’ve got Hull KR here in Perpignan then back on the aeroplane for Leeds away on the Friday. Then there’s a break the weekend after that where we could hopefully get the postponed Leeds game on.
“It’s a challenge and teams will ebb and flow, I though Hull looked really strong at the start of the year and they’ve just had a really tough run of fixtures. Warrington have come good, we’ve been good at certain stages and St Helens and Wigan looked unbeatable at first but as usual the season is evolving and it’s pointless trying to predict things at this stage.
“You look at that incredible Castleford performance in the cup semi-final and you wonder why there are where they are in the league. And then Hull KR go to Wigan and come away with a win so it’s a really good mix at the moment.
“We are on good form in terms of results but our last performance at Leigh wasn’t anywhere near good enough and it’s really important that we find our rhythm.
“That’s why this Castleford game is so important. We’re both a bit under strength through injuries and call-ups for the England game so it’s a hard one to call.
“All we can focus on is finding and maintaining our rhythm as the season goes on.”
Epic road trip for England duo
Young French star is "blown away" by high praise from League legend Rob Burrow
Story and picture: STEVE BRADY
TOUGH NUT JIMMY
Maloney doesn't mind the knocks as long as he's on the winning side...
AFTER FOURTEEN years of professional Rugby League, starring in NRL Grand Finals, State of Origin series and representing the Kangaroos, you would think James Maloney would be used to taking the knocks.
“No, it still hurts,” the 34-year Aussie veteran told Catalan Media following the latest of a series of head and facial injuries he has received since switching to Super League with Catalans Dragons.
Maloney once again finished a game with blood leaking from his forehead after the brutal demolition of Wigan Warriors at Stade Gilbert Brutus last week. It was a recurrence of the wound he received while putting in a man-of-the match performance against champions St Helens the previous week.
This, despite an early collision with one of his team-mates which resulted in treatment for a head-wound on the pitch and playing the rest of the game wrapped in bandages.
“It’s my fault, if you’re going to choose a player to have a head knock with you shouldn’t choose Julian Bousquet, he’s a pretty big boy,” said Maloney who has had a series of cuts to his face and head since he arrived in Perpignan last season.
“It’s part of the game, I’ve just been a little unlucky recently. It’s a physical game and that’s how it’s always been,” added the Dragons stand-off.
“It’s no different in Super League, you still pick up the same knocks as you do in the NRL, there’s a physicality that’s ingrained in the game.
“I enjoy that physical side of things and I’m just playing the game the same way as I have for a long period now.
“This latest cut wasn’t so bad thankfully, we took the bandage off and they said we’re going to put one stitch in. I said, come on, is it worth it for just one stitch?”
All joking apart, Maloney is deadly serious when it comes to player welfare and he supports the current controversial campaign down under cracking down on contact to the head during games.
ARL Chairman Peter V’Landys is on a mission to reduce concussion injury which has resulted in a string of players receiving lengthy suspensions for high tackles, a policy which has split the game in Australia with some critics arguing that taming the game could kill off the sport.
Maloney believes rumours of the demise of Rugby League in Australia are premature: “The biggest thing I’ve seen back home is people blowing up that it will be the death of the game and all that.
“I haven’t watched a lot of NRL but I’ve heard a lot of noise about this new campaign. For me, the biggest issue is it has come out of nowhere, it seemed to have sprung from two weeks ago when they had the big Magic Weekend and it’s gone a bit over the top ever since.
“But it’s like anything, whenever they want to crack down on something it all goes a little too far in the early stages. This kind of thing might have been better introduced pre-season so everyone was made aware of what’s going to happen and it isn’t such a shock.”
Maloney is supportive of any efforts to reduce the effect of concussion among his colleagues, adding: “In terms of looking after players’ welfare with head knocks it’s vital that we take a look at it especially when you see players’ careers ending early because of it.
“We don’t want to see players finishing too soon and suffering later in life because of things that could have been prevented.
“I don’t think the stance the ARL are taking is wrong and once they get over these initial stages it will balance out to a more reasonable situation.
“It’s up to the referees to work out what the serious knocks are and not penalise too heavily the silly ones then the players will start adjusting to the new rules.
“They outlawed the shoulder charge a few years ago and it caused a few problems but we all got used to it, players always adjust.
“The real problem is the timing of it, it might have been better brought in before the season started.
“It’s difficult for players to have one set of rules on week and then another the week after and that’s probably where all of the drama is coming from at the moment.”
Maloney is all for less drama at this stage of his career and he has purposefully avoided following his former team-mates at Penrith Panthers or any of the NRL action on television.
“My kids watch more of it than me,” he said. “And I’m actually quite happy not to have to worry about it any more. I’m enjoying being over here away from it to be honest.
“I can see the results are going really well for the Panthers which is good, but I’m trying not to get too tied up in it.
“Penrith are going good but the biggest thing for me at the moment in the NRL is the divide between the levels of the sides competing.
Story and picture:
“That was always the big thing about Super League, everybody told me to expect that when I joined Catalans, there would be two top sides and the rest would drop away but I’ve found it to be totally the opposite.
“You look at some of the scorelines back home now and some sides don’t stand a chance of competing with the top clubs and even though it’s early on it’s already looking like a two-horse race between Melbourne and Penrith.
“From a fan’s perspective and the game as a whole it’s not what you want. A healthy competition has close games with the results up in the air every week.”
There have been a few close calls for Catalans so far this season but the club has had its best-ever start to a league season with six wins from seven and Maloney thinks the Dragons have turned a corner.
He said, “We’re going well, I think we’re a lot more consistent this year even though we’ve lost twice to Warrington in cup and league.
“Even when we’re not playing perfectly we’re still at a consistent level and our defence is holding us in games where last year we might have lost.
“We beat Saints the other week and I don’t think either team performed to their very best but it’s a really good sign for us that we might not be at 100 per cent but we can still win against the champions.
“Losing such a classy player as Sammy Tomkins in the warm-up, plus Samisoni (Langi) who is so important to our side in terms of carrying us forward, was a real test for us.
“But the real beauty is that this season we’ve got guys who can come in and do the job. Young Matthieu (Laguerre) again was outstanding, and he’d done a captain’s run training session with the reserves that morning, and Arthur Mourgue’s performance at full-back probably sums up our improvement.
“The previous Monday’s game at Hull had been a late kick-off so we only got back around 4am which takes a lot out of you on a five-day turnaround to face the top team in the competition.
“We had ready-made excuses if we’d have lost but the way the team turned up and knocked them over is a really good sign for this playing group.
“Then, of course, we backed it up with that win against Wigan which shows how far we have come even at this early stage of the season.
“There were some really positive signs that the group is playing for each other and there is a growing confidence among the payers and staff that we can keep the momentum going. That’s the challenge now, to hit the ground running at Leigh after our break for the cup.”
Another boost for the Dragons has been the return of limited crowds to the Brutus following an eight-month absence, a limited crowd of 1,000 was allowed to witness the victories over St Helens and Wigan, and 5,000 supporters will be allowed into their next home game against Leeds Rhinos under French government guidelines.
“It makes a huge difference,” said Maloney.
“You probably don’t realise because you’ve spent so much time without supporters, just how much you’ve missed them. This is why we do it.
“We don’t have many supporters following us at away games because of the travel expense but to hear the French fans singing in Perpignan really inspires you on the pitch. They make it such a special occasion
There’s another special occasion lined up at the end of the season, the Rugby League World Cup, but the Green and Gold veteran isn’t expecting a call-up.
He said, “I’ve got Irish ancestry and I’ve had someone call me to check on my availability but my heritage is too far back to qualify.
“I’m still up for it if anything was to happen in terms of Australia, because you never know these days, but as for Ireland I’m afraid my roots are too deep.
“And to be honest, if the travel restrictions are lifted I think we’d head straight back to Australia, we haven’t seen family and friends for over eighteen months now and that’s tough.
“We love our life here in France but for my wife and children to spend so much time without seeing family members back home is really difficult.
“I know lots of the overseas players are going through the same thing at the moment but unfortunately that’s the way things are at the moment and you’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
Bosc's beach boys
CATALANS DRAGONS legend Thomas Bosc took charge of training at the club last week and immediately took the players to the beach.
But this was no return to the bad old days of epic seaside booze parties for Aussie veterans, the Dragons’ Assistant coach had his players running, swimming and competing in a Baywatch-style competition in an effort to maintain fitness and build team spirit.
“It might look like we were having fun,” Bosc told Catalan Media, “But we’re deadly serious when it comes to continuing our recent run of form and these kind of things are essential for team bonding.”
Head-coach Steve McNamara took a back-step during the Dragons’ week-off because of the Challenge Cup semi-finals, allowing Bosc to use the natural resources available to him in his home country.
He said, “We had a Baywatch style training session in the sea which got really competitive but the water was too cold for a Frenchman like me so I let the boys go in and they enjoyed doing something different for a change.
“It was the right time to do it, and we all had a meal together later with captain Ben Garcia and his family.
“We had a period of rest for a couple of days and the mood in the camp is very positive.
“The boys have been fighting hard for each other on the pitch so we want that kind of spirit off the field too.
“They are in really good spirits, our video review sessions have been very happy in recent weeks, which is not always the case, so it is important to enjoy times like these.”
The Dragons have had their best-ever start to a Super League season with seven wins from eight and Bosc has been at the club for every one of those 15 seasons. He believes this crop of Catalans could be the first that make it all the way to Old Trafford.
He added, “The real challenge is to keep that winning roll going and while we’ve had fun this week the time for relaxing is at the end of the season, we haven’t achieved anything yet and it is crucial that we keep our focus.
“We are in a great position, just one loss in the league and of course our cup defeat by Warrington which we are still not happy about.
“The players can’t seem to shake the disappointment of the cup game, which is not a bad thing.
“We have to put those frustrations into each and every game now because there is only one competition and we will be doing everything we can to win it.
“I can feel the confidence from the boys and we have shown that we can now compete with every team in the league but there is a long way to go yet.
“We are showing resilience this year and while it’s a bit early to talk about consistency I think the early signs are very positive for this group of players.
Bosc played his entire career with Catalans, he is the club’s all-time leading points-scorer, and the 37-year-old former French international is still loving every minute of his time at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
“I love this club and I am very proud of what it has achieved. It makes me so happy to have a group of players like this one who feel responsibility and accountability when they wear the shirt.
“The decision to release so many senior players at the end of last season has worked, we can now see our reserves coming through the ranks and that is the future of this club.
“It’s taken a lot of time, effort and resources to get our reserves to such a high standard of fitness and coaching and I’m proud of each and every one of the kids that make it as a professional.
“It’s a new cycle for Catalans Dragons and hopefully for French Rugby League.”
Bosc believes the investment in youth development at the club is about to pay off for the French national side.
“With the work we are doing, and also at Toulouse Olympique, the French national team will be much stronger in the future.
“It’s a little too early for those young players to have a major impact in this year’s World Cup but they will definitely strengthen the squad.
“The real bonus for France will be in two or three years’ time, and with a Rugby League World Cup being planned here in 2025 it is very exciting what is in store for Rugby League in this country.
“I hope I’m totally wrong and these young players suddenly mature in time for this year’s competition.
“They will certainly bring in new ideas, new inspiration into the French team, just like they are doing here at the Dragons now.
“They bring a fresh, youthful approach and if they keep training and learning they will improve the whole game here.
“I remember when I started as a young French boy and I saw the different levels between Super League and the French championship.
“Suddenly we had a Super League club in Catalans Dragons and the players are getting top level professional coaching.
“That’s where we want to go with these players and as long as they are prepared to work hard the future of French Rugby League is in good hands.
“Two teams in Super League would give two chances for French players to develop at the highest level every week. What a boost for French Rugby League.
“I hope Toulouse will go up next season and what a derby that would be!”
Super League is now the holy grail for the Dragons, having already won the Challenge Cup in 2018, and Bosc knows the key word is consistency if Catalans are going to make it to the Theatre Of Dreams.
He said, “In my time here I have seen some incredible Catalans performances, where we would have beaten anyone, but equally I have seen the other side where we have thrown it all away.
“The difference with this group is that Steve McNamara has assembled a squad of players who all feel individually accountable to the team and the club.
“It’s much easier for us as coaches when we are working with players like this. We’ve got a good mix of experienced players like Sam Tomkins and James Maloney alongside some very exciting young French players who are making people sit up and take notice of them.
“We have a lot of trust in this playing group and I have seen a lot of playing groups here at the Brutus.”
Catalans should have Matt Whitley back in the playing group for the Leigh game following his recovery from a neck injury. Arthur Romano and Alrix Da Costa are still sidelined with knee injuries and Joel Tomkins will miss the game at Leigh as the first part of his four-match suspension.
The Dragons dive into training on the Med
"We have a lot of trust in this playing group and I have seen a lot of playing groups at the Brutus..." Thomas Bosc
Story: STEVE BRADY Pictures: Dragons Official
TOULOUSE TOUGH GUYS
BY STEVE BRADY
EIGHT YEARS of battling against the odds will help Toulouse Olympique through the challenges of this year’s Championship campaign, according to coach Sylvain Houles.
The 39-year-old former French international believes the difficulties of the past will serve his side well as they try to live up to their pre-season billing as potential favourites for the title and an historic promotion into Super League.
“It’s tough for everyone at the moment, but we’ve had to face some huge challenges over the years and it has created a feeling at the club that we can overcome anything,” he told Catalan Media.
Current UK government Covid-control measures have left Toulouse without home fixtures against part-time rival clubs in the early stages of the season and unless restrictions relax in the coming months, the club faces an uphill task to complete the required number of fixtures to reach a percentage win ratio that will ensure play-off contention.
“It’s not something in our control,” said Houles, “So there is no point worrying about it. Things are changing daily and all we can do is focus on the immediate task in front of us.
“We are a tight-knit group and these challenges only make us tighter.”
Toulouse fly to fellow title-rivals York City Knights this weekend for the opening round of the 2021 season and Houles is under no illusions about the size of the task ahead.
“It’s always a tough game against York,” he said: “And especially with it being their first match at their new stadium. It’s a coincidence because last year the first game of our season at our new stadium was against York, so we know how they will be feeling.
“We’ve had a very long pre-season, we’ve had 17 weeks of training so far so we’re ready to go. We had a trial match against Catalans Dragons and I could see the excitement among the players to get back into competitive action.
“We need to bring that same enthusiasm in against York if we’re going to get something out of the game.
“It’s crucial that we hit the ground running because in these times we’re not sure where or when our next game will be so we have to take our opportunities when we can.”
Houles admits his role at the club recently has been to keep his squad mentally prepared for the season ahead.
“We’re extremely fit and well-prepared physically,” said the coach, adding: “And we’ve got a happy squad, but of course they are all inquisitive about the latest developments with travel restrictions and Covid and we’ve been very transparent with them about our position.
“We all read up and chat about what’s going on because there are many things we don’t know but what we’re sure about is it will be a real battle against some very strong opposition at the same time as the pandemic.
“We know we will have to bend and adapt if we’re going to get through it and we’ve been very successful in preventing Covid within the squad recently. We haven’t had a positive test here since November.
“There are some things that are simply our of our hands and we will be challenged but the spirit is tremendous and we are not afraid of what’s ahead, we’re looking forward to it.
“Each member of the group is prepared to fight for this team and this club and that’s amazing considering what is being asked of them.”
Houles has had to deal with the loss of his top-scoring winger Paul Marcon who has had surgery for an ACL knee injury and will miss the entire season, plus the departure of Welsh prop Ben Evans who returned to the UK last week citing homesickness.
“It was a total accident what happened to Paul and it’s a real shame for him because he is such a quality winger and crucial part of the team but it’s up to players like Guy Armitage who we have just signed to step up and fill that place.
“I don’t think we’ll be looking to recruit for our back-line, we’ve got a few boys due back from injury so I think we’re fine in that department.
“It’s different with Ben Evans, we understand his reasons for wanting to go home but it leaves us with a hole in the forwards. We’ve got some good young players who could make the step up so we’re in no rush but if the right player comes along we might take a look.”
Houles paid tribute to the efforts of his colleagues at the club, adding: “I have to give every credit to our chairman (Bernard Sarrazain) and Chief Executive (Cedric Garcia) for guiding us through this incredibly difficult time.
“The quality of the players that we have assembled when we are facing almost impossible odds just to survive is a fantastic achievement by everyone at Toulouse Olympique.
“For us to be able to finance a full-time team of high-quality players in these circumstances – not just Covid but even before that – it is incredible.
“Just to compete in the championship we have to cover all of our costs, the travel, the salaries, the staff, the medical costs, it is a massive mountain to climb.
“But we’ve faced these challenges for eight years now. We’ve had to go over so many hurdles and at each stage we stop and we talk together and find a way to get through.
“So our experiences so far have served us well for the challenge of Covid and the players have responded to that positive attitude.
“When the club has to overcome such difficulties the players buy into it and it creates a win-at-all-costs mentality.
“The answer to many challenges in life is to work as hard as you can. We are aware that we could create history by being the first team promoted from the championship to Super League but it won’t come easy.
“That hard work will continue at York on Saturday and the following week at home to London Broncos.
“We have a very simple task ahead. Win every game and let other things take care of themselves.”
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE’S 2021 championship hopes took a knock with the news that winger Paul Marcon will miss the entire season after suffering a knee injury.
The 25-year-old French international was helped from the pitch during the recent pre-season friendly against Catalans Dragons and medical scans later revealed a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament which requires surgery and a lengthy recovery period.
Toulouse coach Sylvain Houles told Catalan Media, “It was devastating news for Paul and for the club too. He is such an integral part of what we are doing here and he will be sorely missed. We are all hoping he has a fast recovery and is back in the squad as soon as possible.”
On a brighter note, Marcon’s centre partner Junior Vaivai, who was also injured in the Catalans game, has recovered and is ready to rejoin training.
Meanwhile, Toulouse have announced that their new captain for 2021 will be 31-year-old stand-off Johnathon Ford.
The former Sydney Roosters and Cook Islands international takes over from Constantine Mika who has left the club and joined French Elite One side Villeneuve.
Houles added, “Johnathon is clearly a leader on the pitch and it was a natural choice to make him captain.
“He has the full respect of players and everyone at the club.”
Ford said: “It is a great honour to lead this historic club and I hope in some way that I can help it to achieve its massive potential.
“We’ve assembled a strong squad and it is up to us as players now to repay the faith the club has shown in us.”
"Eight years of battling against the odds makes us feel we can overcome anything..." coach Sylvain Houles is ready for a fight
“Each member of the group is prepared to fight for this team and this club and that’s amazing considering what is being asked of them.”
"We need to regrow the game in France"
New IRL chief tells Catalan Media his plans for a 2025 Rugby League World Cup in France
By Steve Brady
INCOMING CHAIRMAN of the International Rugby League Federation Troy Grant has announced plans to bring the 2025 World Cup to France.
Here’s the transcript of my conversation with the former Australian politician this morning, in which he revealed the news…
On his appointment to the role of leading the international game, he said: “It’s a real privilege to be able to take on this role and the reason I’m so chuffed to have the opportunity is that there is so much to do and as chairman of the IRL the first obligation I have to our members is to bring about a level of transparency and a lot more honesty and truth-telling about the challenges we face and the opportunities we seek.
“Quite frankly we have to overcome a lot of inertia that has occurred for a lot of reasons and while I am the type who likes to look forward in every situation, we still need to learn a lot of lessons from the past as well.
“It’s well overdue that the IRL as an organisation stepped up and took more of a lead role, building better relationships with the major nations and acknowledging the contribution that they make to the international game.
“We have to understand our responsibilities and drive forward with a more holistic, dynamic and successful model than it has been previously.
“I come into the role understanding the failings of the game. We had our first World Cup in 1954 (which was held in France) where, in comparison, international cricket and rugby union have more longevity with their competitions and are far more advanced than we are with their international calendars, especially from a commercial perspective and the scale of their products.
“I’m not unaware of the size of the challenge that we have but I hope that I can bring my collective experience and work with the passion that everyone involved in Rugby League has for the sport to give it the greatest opportunity to thrive on the international stage.”
SB: There has been significant growth for Rugby League in France, much of that down to the individual efforts, and expense, of the two professional clubs, Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique. What role can the IRL now take to build on that?
“The RFL and Super League have obviously made the participation of Catalans and Toulouse in their competitions possible but what comes behind that is where the IRL has a key role to play.
“The domestic game as I understand it from what Luc has told me and what I have read, for a long time has suffered from a complex issue of where it stood in the national psyche as an opposer or competitor to rugby union.
“But there has been an evolution as of late, particularly in Toulouse which has seen a decision made that the perception of a competition between the two codes is just a wasted effort.
“We need to understand where we can support the French national league to develop the game, participation-wise and visibility-wise, getting more eyeballs on the game in France whether it be NRL of Super League content.”
SB: There has been historic division within the French game, particularly between the pro clubs and the national ruling body. Now that the French Federation has a new President in Luc Lacoste, is the IRL planning to work with him to bring unity and a common cause into the game here?
“That’s a challenge we need to overcome. The recent enhancement of the of the IRL’s engagement with the French national game has been helpful and it gives me some confidence that we can overcome some of those historic broadcasting and rights issues that have prevented the game from being showcased.
“It is incumbent upon us to play that role. The reality is that the IRL has a capacity of eight people, we’re not a big organisation but what we do have is access to a lot of resources with which we can help member nations with real support.
“We are a facilitator. When I became deputy chairman of the IRL I ran around and spoke to a lot of Australians who had experience of Rugby League in the northern hemisphere, people like Wayne Bennett, Blake Solly and Trent Robinson, and to a man they all said that one of my priorities as a director is to regrow the game in France, it’s so important to international Rugby League.
“With that in mind I’ve been working with the French government, I have contacts through my political associations here in Australia, and the IRL Board have signed off on me establishing an exploratory committee which Luc Lacoste and the French Federation have also signed off on, on hosting the 2025 World Cup in France.
“We have started that work, it’s still early but I’ve pitched it to the French government, that the Rugby League World Cup would be a trifecta of international events following the rugby union World Cup in 2023 then the Paris Olympics in 2024 then our World Cup in 2025.
“We’ve started that work with Luc and we’re pretty close to getting a product that he can formalise and take to the French government.”
SAMISONI LANGI is hoping to linger longer in the south of France despite having the worst year of his career in 2020 (writes Steve Brady).
The 27-year-old Tongan international has a year to run on his existing contract at Catalans Dragons but he’s hoping for more seasons in the sun at Super League’s French outpost.
“It’s such a brilliant place to play Rugby League,” Langi told Catalan Media. “I’d love to stay as long as possible and it’s up to me to perform at 110 per cent this year if that’s going to happen.
“We love it here and we’re settled and I’d love to resign and stay with the club, they’ve been really good to us.”
Langi has been a sensation at Stade Gilbert Brutus since switching from Leigh Centurions in 2017 following a 26-10 defeat in the Million Pound relegation clash against the Dragons.
Moving from stand-off to centre in a partnership with winger Fouad Yaha, Langi has been at the heart of Catalans’ successes at Wembley and Camp Nou and French supporters have taken him to heart for his all-action commitment in the blood and gold.
Like all players, Langi felt the impact of Covid last year, but the inability to travel has hit his family more than most.
“We had a second daughter last year,” he said, “And it’s been really difficult for my family, not being able to see her.
“Normally, we’d fly back home during the off-season but obviously that’s not been possible.
“It’s been the toughest time of my career, as I’m sure it’s the same with many overseas players being physically isolated from our families back home.
“It’s been difficul mentally to deal with it all and we’ve had to keep our focus on all the positives.
“Hopefully, it’s going to be different this year but even now there’s an element of uncertainty.”
Langi will meet up with his team-mates for the first time in months as the Dragons return to training this morning (Monday) and he’s itching to start.
“We’ve been busy making sure we’re in shape, ready for the season. You’ve got to stay switched on and make sure you do the little things right but it isn’t the same as training together.
“We’ve been able to train individually but footy’s a team sport and even though we’ve only got four weeks before the season starts I’m sure we’ll gel together quickly.
“There have been a number of departures and I’m going to miss the boys who have left but it’s all part of Rugby League, with new recruits coming in.”
Wing partner Yaha signed a new two-year extension at the Brutus last week and Langi couldn’t be happier. He said, “I was made up for Fouad when he signed the new deal, we’ve got a good relationship I think and it’s up to us to push on with that on the field this year. If the team is going to make that one step further and reach a final it’s up to us to do our job on that left edge.”
Langi said he would be “honoured” if the chance came up for him to rejoin the Tongan national squad for the forthcoming World Cup and add to his current seven caps but he wouldn’t lose sight of the job in hand.
He added, “My performances for Catalans are the sole focus this season but it’s always a desire to play for your country. Tonga have a very strong squad for the World Cup so I’m going to have to be playing some really good footy to be in with a chance.
“I’d love to be a part of it, the World Cup is a special event and even moreso now after recent events. It would be an incredible way to celebrate the game and return to normal life once more.”
CATALANS DRAGONS 50
FRENCH FEDERATION SELECT XIII 18
STEVE BRADY, Stade Aimé Giral, Saturday March 6th 2021
CATALANS DRAGONS got their condensed pre-season programme off to a winning start with a comprehensive victory over a French Federation Select side.
Coach Steve McNamara took full advantage of rare game-time in his crash-course four-week schedule by giving 33 players a run-out at Stade Aimé Giral, the place where it all began in Super League for the Dragons 15 years ago.
Catalans’ home ground Stade Gilbert Brutus was being used by French football giants Olympic Marseille in their cup clash against local minnows Canet FC so this ‘friendly’ clash was played at the home of Perpignan’s pro rugby union club USAP – the ground where Catalans played their first ever SL fixture in 2006, against Wigan Warriors.
The Dragons were without captain Ben Garcia, Gil Dudson, the suspended Michael McIlorum and Joel Tomkins, and new signing Dean Whare who was in-flight from Australia to France during the match but they were far too strong for the selection of players from the French championship, containing several former Catalans including Tony Gigot, Mika Simon and Lucas Albert, even with a second-half entirely made up of Catalans’ young reserve players.
McNamara was happy with his side’s performance, the only cause for concern an injury to Lucas Ribas who was stretchered off in the second half.
“It looks like a rib injury which is very painful but hopefully not too serious,” said McNamara after the game.
“But overall, it was a good day for us. The French team was strong and physical early in the game and it was good for us to get out there and blow off some cobwebs.”
Sam Tomkins and James Maloney oozed class throughout their first-half stint and new signing Mike McMeeken hit the ground running with a debut try on the half-hour.
Matt Whitley was ferocious at right centre, combining effectively with a rampant Tom Davies who grabbed two tries before retiring at half-time with the rest of his senior team-mates.
Davies was first to score after five minutes, closely followed by prop Paul Séguier who took a short ball from Tomkins to step between the posts.
Tomkins scored the try of the match next with a cameo side-stepping long distance strike then Albert managed to hit back for the Select side against his former club.
But further tries from McMeeken and Davies put the Dragons in command at the break 28-6, allowing coach McNamara to make a complete change of players, bringing his young reserves on for the second half.
Arthur Mourgue and César Rougé lived up to their Elite One rave-reviews in the halves, creating the space for full-back Robin Brochon to score in the right corner but an interception and 40-metre sprint by Nitim Pedrero in the 55th minute pegged the Dragons back to 34-12.
But there was little else to offer from the Select team as Jordan Dezaria and Romain Franco crossed for Catalans, and the giant Corentin Le Cam plucked a high ball from Mourgue out of the cloudy skies to complete the 50-point rout.
A defensive lapse in concentration allowed Albi’s second-rower Tristan Dupuy to stride over for a late consolation try for the Select XIII, leaving coach Laurent Frayssinous reasonably satisfied with the day’s work.
“We only had three days to prepare so it was a big challenge to play against a team as strong as the Dragons,” said Frayssinous.
“Obviously there is a big gap between Super League and the French championship but you will learn a lot when you’re playing against the likes of Sam Tomkins and James Maloney.”
Frayssinous (who is also the French national coach) added: “Games like this are important when we look towards the World Cup and I have seen a lot today from the French players in both teams that gives me confidence.”
The Dragons will return to Stade Brutus on Saturday (March 13th) for their second pre-season fixture against Toulouse Olympique, coach McNamara adding: “It will be a very different game, a much smaller squad and our senior players will have more minutes on the pitch.”
Will Langi linger longer?
Samisoni's hoping for more seasons in the sun in the south of France
A DIFFERENT DRAGON
"We will see some young and hungry French players coming through the ranks this year..."
Catalans coach Steve McNamara
By Steve Brady
STEVE McNAMARA is promising a different Dragon in 2021 with a new-look side taking flight to the UK this weekend for the first round of Super League 2021.
Catalans take on Hull KR at Headingley on Saturday aiming to go one better than their top-four finish last season with a “younger, hungrier” squad containing several French players promoted from the reserves.
Seven senior players have left the club and centre Israel Folau is expected to remain in Australia but McNamara insists his side is settled and ready for the task ahead, despite having just four weeks to prepare because of Covid restrictions on training.
“We’re ready,” he told Catalan Media: “We’re ready physically and in every other department.
“It’s a new-look side with a new captain (Ben Garcia) and we will see some young and hungry French players coming through the ranks this year.
“The door is open, we’ve got a couple of players missing through suspension (Michael McIlorum and Joel Tomkins) so it’s up to the players who get the chance to make the most of it. They’re in pole position and some of them will get their chance this week.
“We’ve got a couple of overseas slots still available in the squad so we can strengthen when we need to and we’ll get Micky and Joel back after the first few rounds so there’s an element of confidence within the squad for the start of the season.
“We’re not under any immediate pressure to make recruitments, I’m more than happy with where we are at this stage.”
New signings Mike McMeeken, Gil Dudson and Kiwi international Dean Whare will all be up for selection against the Robins, McNamara adding: “Dean has joined the training group and you can tell from day one just how professional he is, and what a leader he will be in the group.
“He’s clearly a good player but it’s the other qualities that he brings. You can see how physically fit and strong he is, and when you see how he prepares himself for training, the little details, he is an absolute professional. When you bring an overseas player in that’s the sort of thing you’re hoping for.
“It’s ironic, the only player at the club who has had a full pre-season is the newest guy in the squad. Dean completed the full programme with Penrith Panthers so he’s had more prep than anyone else.
“But we will have no excuses from a physical perspective, all of our players have trained incredibly hard individually throughout the closed season.”
McNamara admits there is an element of stepping into the unknown with round one of the competition but he insists his players are fully briefed on their duties.
He said, “Round one is about basics and fundamentals, playing with the ball in your hands as much as possible and it’s important we get that right at Headingley.
“It’s a new-look Hull KR team so it’s difficult to know what to expect but at this stage as a coach you are more concerned about your own team getting things right than the opposition.
“We need to get our own game in order. Rovers will have had a little look at us against Toulouse last week and we’ve had a look at them against Castleford.
“They’ve got some new additions, they’re a very good team and I’m sure they’ll be looking to play their own game rather than worry about what we’ll be doing.
“After all the drama and tribulations of last year the players can’t wait to get stuck in and we’re looking forward to it.”
Les Dracs back on the box
SATURDAY AFTERNOON games from Perpignan will be broadcast live on Sky Sports once more thanks to a new deal brokered by Catalans Dragons’ President Bernard Guasch.
Catalans have agreed to pay production costs for coverage of Super League fixtures at Stade Gilbert Brutus in 2021 which will come as a relief to English supporters who are currently unable to attend games because of Covid restrictions.
“It’s great news,” Dragons coach Steve McNamara told Catalan Media: “It’s been a big part of our club for many years now, being shown live on French and English TV.”
The lights went out last year when former broadcast partners beIN Sports stopped covering Catalans games but the relationship has been rekindled and beIN will now transmit live games for viewers in France and Sky have agreed to show the footage in the UK with English commentary provided from their headquarters at Isleworth.
McNamara added, “It’s great for the whole game, it’s quite unique with us playing Saturdays, supporters have got used to that afternoon game from the Brutus on Sky in the UK, it was a routine that people missed last year.
“It’s going to cost the club money but Bernard’s made the decision that he’s happy to pay for it because coverage is so valuable, not only for the club but for French Rugby League as a whole.
“The level of exposure for our partners and sponsors and the overall profile of the club is so much better when it is shown live on television.
“These pictures get pinged back to Australia and New Zealand, I know a lot of people down there who watch all of the games so it’s really important to us.”
McNamara said the TV deal was the ideal boost for Catalans who have suffered financially over the past year.
“The last twelve months for any club has been a challenge,” he said: “But this club is going into its 15th year in Super League and the trajectory for the Dragons is continuing upwards.
“There have been some blips. It’s never a straight line and there will always be ups and down along the way but in terms of what Catalans bring to the competition, the improvement it has made to its professionalism and organisation, it has been outstanding.
“15 years is not a long time but the progress that has been made is there for all to see and it’s up to us to ensure that continues for many years to come.”
The Dragons were the first French club to lift the Challenge Cup and the club broke the regular-round Super League attendance record with their 2019 game against Wigan at Barcelona’s Camp Nou but McNamara believes the biggest success for the club is yet to come.
He said, “It’s the same for all the other teams since Super League started, we’re all striving to get into that Grand Final. Only four teams have ever won the trophy but we’re intent on becoming the fifth and hopefully our time will come soon.
“It was a really smart decision to bring in Catalans in 2006. It must have been a really good sell by the club because to be fair in England we didn’t really know how strong Rugby League was in this part of the south of France.
“But there was a clear vision from the people down here that sold the idea to Super League. You talk about development and expansion for the game and there can be no doubt that Catalans Dragons have ticked those boxes and continue to be a strong addition to the game as a whole.
“That’s why it is so important that we get Toulouse in there as well. The impact that two teams here could have is potentially game-changing for the entire sport.”
Much more for Mitch
MITCH GARBUTT reckons a few seasons in the sun in the south of France will prolong a career that has stretched from Melbourne to Toulouse, via Leeds and Hull (writes Steve Brady).
The 31-year-old Aussie prop-forward has settled into French life quickly since his switch from Craven Park to Stade Ernest Wallon in November to join Toulouse Olympique’s bold push for promotion from the championship to Super League.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” he told Catalan Media.
“Everyone’s feeling really good, it’s that kind of place. We’re all feeling a couple of years younger, maybe it’s the nice French weather, I don’t know, but it feels great.”
Garbutt needed elbow reconstruction surgery following his final season in England at Hull KR (and a four-year stint in the front row at Leeds Rhinos) but he’s now in full training alongside fellow new recruits Rémi Casty, Eloi Pelissier, Joseph Paulo and Dominic Peyroux.
Garbutt said, “I had an elbow reconstruction and I’ve recovered quite quickly and I’m back into the swing of things at training now.
“I’m only 31 and Harrison Hansen told me he’s going to play until he’s 45 so I must have plenty left in the tank. I think I’ve got a good few years left in me and I’ve been lucky enough to join a club and a squad of players that are capable of a few successful years together.”
Garbutt began his career in the NRL at Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos before moving to Headingley where he picked up two Grand Final winners’ rings plus Challenge Cup final success in 2015.
Now he has his sights on another challenge – helping Toulouse make history by becoming the first French club to gain promotion from championship to Super League.
He added, “We were a bit disappointed when we weren’t granted automatic promotion to replace Toronto in December because we think we’ve got a strong enough squad to compete.
“I’ve been in some really good, structured teams and I’m lucky enough to have been involved in some great systems in the NRL and this set-up is up there with the best of them.
“The ideas that they are driving through here are really interesting and they are extremely focused upon a rigid structure. That is what is making them successful, Coach Sylvain Houles and assistant Greg White are very creative in their methods but super strict and the whole thing is like a breath of fresh air.
“We’re all made aware of where this club wants to be, and the responsibility we have as players to help put Toulouse back to the top of French Rugby League. But it’s also an opportunity for us.
“Established players like Johnno Ford and Mark Kheirallah, they are already aware of the strengths and potential of this club. It’s been a very good championship side for years now and with the addition of new players this season it can only improve.”
Garbutt and his family have adapted immediately to life in France, having previously planned to make the move before he joined the Rhinos.
“I was close to coming over in 2011/12, I was interested in the French championship back then and just before I signed for Toulouse I almost joined Albi, so it’s something I’ve always been keen to try out.
Garbutt grabs his chance to flourish in France
“We got here in November, and it was lockdown for a few weeks which was a bit quiet but things have opened up a little bit since and it’s been really good.
“I’m picking up a bit of French as I’m going along. It’s amazing how much you learn just going for the groceries and stuff, it’s challenging but it’s been enjoyable so far.
“It’s a really nice city and we’ve settled in well, we’re talking to the neighbours as best as we can.
“We take our youngest son to junior Rugby League training in Toulouse on a Wednesday afternoon and there’s a heap of kids down there all wearing Olympique shirts. It’s obvious that the club is working hard at the grass roots side of the game and once you get the kids turning up it will grow.”
Garbutt said his interest in the French championship is still strong and he would eventually consider making the switch when his time at Toulouse is over.
He added, “The Elite One league has really improved, and they are getting a lot more exposure now by showing their games online. It’s probably surprised a few people with the quality of the competition, and the standard of player that is being attracted to it at the moment.
“There are some very experienced former Super League and NRL players running around in Elite One now and depending on how things go with Toulouse it is definitely something I would lean towards doing in the future.
“But I’d like to think I’ve got a few years left at the top level with Toulouse, particularly if I’m going to play until I’m 45 like Harrison.”
Toulouse last week agreed to release 29-year-old prop Paterika Vaivai from his contract by “mutual consent.”
The Samoan front-rower made 27 appearances for Toulouse since joining the club from Leigh in 2019 and a club spokesman told League Express, “The entire TO thanks Patty for his time at the club and we wish him all the best for his future.”
Since the announcement, Vaivai has been linked with a switch to the French Elite One championship.
Toulouse Olympique will play a pre-season fixture against Super League’s Catalans Dragons at Stade Gilbert Brutus, Perpignan on Saturday 13th March.
The future is French for new-look Catalans Dragons
A FRENCH renaissance will take place at Catalans Dragons this year under new captain Ben Garcia - with Paul Seguier leading the charge of young players coming through the ranks at Stade Gilbert Brutus (writes Steve Brady).
Seguier has been on the fringe of first-team selection for the past two seasons and the release of senior players like Rémi Casty, Sam Moa, Mika Simon and Antoni Maria has created space in the squad for him and his team-mates from the reserves.
Coach Steve McNamara has made it clear that the development of young players is the number one priority for Catalans and he sees Seguier as the spearhead of his mini French revolution.
“Paul’s been knocking on the door for a while now but it has been difficult for him to break through, particularly last year with the limited number of games,” McNamara said.
“We are deliberately trying to reduce the average age of our pack this season and Paul is part of that process.”
The 23-year-old junior French international is in his fifth year at Catalans and he’s spent time in the reserves, and also on loan to Toulouse and Barrow Raiders in an attempt to give him game-time.
This year, he is hoping to get more minutes in the blood and gold, as he told Catalan Media: “Steve has made it clear he want some younger French players coming through so this is a great opportunity for myself and others to break into the first team.
“I just hope we are able to play more games than we did in Super League last year because there were very limited chances for squad members who are just outside of the matchday 17. A number of senior players have left the Dragons so now it’s our time to show what we can do and prove to the coach that we can play.
“It has been difficult with Covid because we can’t train together at the moment so we’re not able to show to the coach what we can do and now hard we have been working on our fitness. We can’t go to the Brutus and be part of a normal squad session, we have to work on our individual programmes, and I know the players are very competitive so I think we’ll all be in good shape when we can finally regroup.”
Seguier appreciates the time he spent on loan and he picked up new skills, even the ability to speak English with an Aussie/PNG accent: “It was good for me to go to Toulouse and Barrow because it was the only way I could get some game time. There is only so much training you can do, it is during games where you learn the most and improve your skills.
“I picked up many things while on loan, including improving my English at Barrow because I was rooming with two Papua New Guinea players and I learnt a lot of interesting new words!
“Loan spells can be very helpful to a player. Everything was different at Barrow – including the weather – but the club was really friendly and I picked up so many new techniques. It’s good to see different training methods and understand the English culture a little more, all of this helps if you are going to make it in Super League. I need to bring this experience into my game.”
Seguier said the decision to appoint Ben Garcia as captain was a very popular one at the Dragons, adding: “Ben is the captain now and he’s a really good guy. On the field he gives so much energy to the team and works hard for his team-mates, he is a real inspiration.
“We have been very lucky to have had captains like Rémi Casty and now Ben because they are very similar in that they lead by example and that lifts the whole team, he takes us forward. I learned so much from Rémi and it is the same now with Ben.”
Casty and Garcia have been mainstays of the French national team over the past decade and Seguier too has international ambitions.
“I would love to wear the French shirt in the World Cup,” he said: “But my first objective is to play well for Catalans and to get as many games in as possible. If the French coach wants me then of course it would be an honour but I can only do this by gaining game-time with the Dragons.”
BEN GARCIA has some big shoes to step into after being named as the new captain of Catalans Dragons.
The 27-year-old second-row has taken over from club legend Rémi Casty who had skippered the Dragons for the past eight seasons but has now switched to Toulouse Olympique.
“I’ve got a tough act to follow,” Garcia told Catalan Media: “But I’m really proud and honoured to have been asked and I will give everything I have to the role.”
The French international joined Catalans from home-town club Avignon in 2013 following a period playing junior league in Australia (where he won the Manly Seagulls Colts player of the year) and despite a brief stint at Penrith Panthers, he has been an ever-present at Stade Gilbert Brutus.
He added: “I’m really proud to be the new captain. I grew up as a Dragons fan and always dreamt to be one day the captain of this club.
“I’m ready to take on the role and lead by example, I really want to do well and win trophies with the club.
“We are entering a new cycle with a lot of young players coming through and I really want to be a part of that and lead this team forward.”
Coach Steve McNamara said it had been an easy decision to appoint Garcia, adding: “Ben’s a winner, he likes to compete and he is very focussed. He’s very experienced, he’s spent time in Australia and he’s a really rounded individual, a new father and very level-headed and he is going to be a really good captain for this club. We’re all very proud of him and it’s an honour for me to be able to give him that opportunity.
“Ben was the clear and obvious choice to be the new captain of the club. His drive and ambition combined with his high level and consistency of performance made this an easy choice.
“He has total respect from everyone within our playing group and he will always put the team first.”
“He’s one of the fittest players at the club, he’s up there on every measure, and hugely respected by all and in particular the younger French players.
“The respect they have for him is immense because of the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch. He is the ultimate role model for young French Rugby League players.”
“We are entering a new cycle with a lot of young players coming through and I really want to be a part of that and lead this team forward.” BEN GARCIA
Home is where the heart is for Tony Gigot
STEVE BRADY speaks to the former Catalans Dragons ace whose career is on the bridge at Avignon - his hometown club
TONY GIGOT rounded off twelve months of hell with a try-scoring return to his hometown club Avignon last week and he couldn’t be happier at making the “step down” from Super League to French Elite One level.
The 30-year-old former Catalans Dragons full-back will be forever grateful to Chris Chester and Michael Carter at Wakefield Trinity for releasing him from the worst year of his career and allowing him to return home.
Gigot was freed from the remaining year of his contract at Belle Vue last month after the French international cited homesickness following a torrid 12-months in which he became entangled in the Toronto Wolfpack collapse then signed for Trinity but suffered from injuries and indifferent performances.
“I’m so grateful to Wakefield, I asked the coach Chris and chairman Michael if I could go home and they listened,” Gigot told Catalan Media.
“It had been the worst year of my career, starting with Toronto, then I got Covid and I picked up some injuries and I think it all affected my performances for Wakefield because I was unhappy. They understood how I was feeling and I’m very grateful for that.”
Gigot has returned to his former club Avignon where he made his Elite One comeback in the French championship on Sunday against Albi and he’s happy to be back with family and friends in the south of France.
Left without a club at the end of 2019 when he failed to agree a new deal at Catalans, Gigot signed a four-week trial contract with Toronto in a bid to secure a permanent deal. Upon the collapse of the Wolfpack, he was again without a club until Trinity stepped in with an 18-month deal.
But the player suffered a series of injuries and failed to make a positive impact for Wakefield before admitting to club chiefs that he was unhappy and homesick.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted things to happen but I’m not the only one who’s been through it,” said Gigot, adding: “It has been a terrible year for everyone across the world, Covid has been a disaster. But after everything that happened last year, all I wanted to do was get home and play some footy, it’s the only thing that makes me happy.
“It was the best thing for me, and probably the best thing for Wakefield too. They gave me the opportunity when they signed me last year and I had hoped to repay them on the pitch.
He said, “It was a tough season for me last year, it was a struggle with Toronto then I got injured, I had Covid and I wasn’t at my best for Wakefield. I’m just happy now that I’m back with my family.”
“But for me to play my best footy I have to be happy in life and after everything that happened last year I couldn’t do that.
“I feel good now at last. Life is beautiful and you have to be happy. I was missing my family, and seeing my nephews grow up and although it is a step down from Super League, it was the right thing for me to do.”
Gigot has been reunited with an influential figure in his career, former Dragons Chief Executive Christophe Jouffret who has taken on an advisory role at Avignon Bisons.
“It’s good to be back alongside Christophe,” said Gigot. “He’s a guy who’s always been around me, we come from the same place and of course we were together at Catalans.
“When I first started playing, he was the Chairman at Avignon and it’s nice that I can see him again back at our club.
“The people here do a great job with not a lot of resources. There are some great young players from around here and hopefully I can help out and pass on some of my experience.”
Gigot admits he hadn’t planned to end his top flight career so soon and he hasn’t dismissed a return to Super League in the future, but it isn’t something he can contemplate at this stage.
He said, “I don’t know if I will play Super League again or not, it isn’t something that is in my head at the moment. I just want to enjoy life again and playing footy for my hometown club has put a smile back on my face.
“I had always hoped to come back here and finish my career but I didn’t think it would be as early as this.
“I’d hate to think that this is the way I finished my Super League career, but that is life, it’s full of lows and highs. I don’t know if I am finished at that level, we will have to take each day as it comes.”
The Bisons ready to bite in Elite 1
RUGBY LEAGUE is on the bridge at Avignon as one of French Rugby League’s most famous and historic clubs prepares for a renaissance under one of the game’s most experienced administrators.
Former Catalans Dragons Chief Executive Christophe Jouffret has returned to his hometown team to help return SO Avignon to its former glory as cup kings and champions of France.
The Bisons hit the headlines last week by announcing the signature of local hero Tony Gigot. The 30-year-old former Catalans, Toronto and Wakefield full-back snapped up the chance to play at the Parc Des Sports in the Elite One competition which is continuing to play during virus-control restrictions under government approval as an “elite sport”.
Gigot said: “I am happy to return to the club where I started; like many, the 2020 season has been complicated. Today, I need to find pleasure in playing and to get back on my feet, hoping to reach the highest level as soon as possible.”
Bisons coach, former French international Renaud Guigue added: “Tony is a player who has enormous talent. We will do everything to ensure he has fun with us again and that he finds the desire to perform.”
The reunion between Jouffret and Gigot, just three years since they saw Challenge Cup glory together (and Gigot won the Lance Todd Trophy) at Wembley, has got Avignon supporters dreaming of a glittering future.
But Jouffret said any Super League ambitions are way off the mark, as he told Catalan Media: “This club is very ambitious and I’ve tried to give my help since I arrived and pass on my experience. There is a very hard-working group of people here and the plan is to make Avignon into one of the top teams in French Rugby League.
“At this time, any thoughts of Super League are not on the table. We need to grow step by step and there is a lot of work to do yet to gain in strength and improve our standing in the French game. In the future, who knows, but it is not something on our minds at this stage.”
Avignon have a rich history, including an incredible hey-day in the 1950s, winning the Lord Derby Cup twice in front of regular crowds of over 10,000. They have won the French cup five times and picked up the Elite One championship in 2018.
Jouffret grew up supporting the team on the terraces with his father and then played for the club. He is a qualified accountant and had a successful career at the French Federation before joining Catalans Dragons. His commercial and administrative experience is a huge asset for the Bisons.
“I have always followed Avignon,” he said.
“The club is very close to my heart. It has been in good hands under the chairmanship of my friends Philippe Duclaux, Eric Garzino, Frédéric and Florien Bissiére and a loyal band of people who are working behind the scenes. If I can help in any way then it is an honour.”
Jouffret added: “Avignon is a big city, it has a strong Rugby League pedigree and we were lucky enough to recruit many top players from the area while I was at the at the Dragons, players like Vincent Duport, Tony Gigot, Arthur Romano, Arthur Mourgue, Ben Garcia and Fouad Yaha and many more from Avignon.
“Our mission is to bring those players back and develop our playing squad. We have a long way to go before we can class ourselves as one of the top French clubs, but we are heading in the right direction.
“Having Tony here again is a massive boost for the club. We all know what a talented player he is and we cannot wait to see him in the Avignon colours again.
“At the same time it is crucial that we develop young players because there is so much young playing talent around here it is essential that we offer the right pathway and pass on our knowledge and guidance. That is the immediate future for Avignon.”
Avignon’s ambitions received another boost last week with the recruitment of former Warrington and Widnes prop Pat Moran. The Wigan-born 22-year-old Ireland international made an impressive debut for the Bisons in a narrow win at Palau Broncos.
PAT MORAN following his debut for Avignon at Palau
Casty's French Connection Two
“Toulouse is the fourth biggest city in France, it has a large economy in and around the city so there is massive potential for the club. Now we have to do it on the field.”
RÉMI CASTY is hoping to provide a French Connection Two for Super League after signing for ambitious championship side Toulouse Olympique (writes STEVE BRADY).
The 35-year-old former Catalans Dragons and French international skipper has signed a one-year deal at Stade Ernest Wallon and he couldn’t be happier... “I’m very happy and excited to be in this team,” he told Catalan Media.
“Toulouse Olympique is such a big name in the history of the game here and it means so much to every French player. To now have the opportunity to be part of the first French team ever to challenge for promotion to Super League from the championship is a real honour.”
Catalans’ shock decision to release their talisman captain left Toulouse with little option but to approach Casty, according to coach Sylvain Houles who said: “As soon as Catalans released him we knew we had to have him with us, he is the player that can take us to the next level.
“He completes a very rich squad. We’ve been on it for a little while and he is the missing piece in our group. He has incredible experience and is a natural leader, the best French player for generations.
“I can see that this new challenge has given Rémi that competitive spirit which all successful sportsman have. It’s clear that he wants to end his incredible career by doing something special and unique.”
Casty himself admits the new role has energised him, saying: “I can’t wait to be part of the team and join the group this week.
“I will bring my experience but also I still feel fresh, I’ve got plenty left in the tank to give something to the team. I always knew I had another year in me and to be part of Toulouse’s push for promotion is incredible for me.
“I know Sylvain, we played together at international level, and in those days the team spirit was very good in the squad so we had many good times together.
“Since then, we have the same friends and we both know Trent Robinson and when he came to France recently me and Sylvain met him and we talked together. I’m very pleased to play for him because I know he is a great coach, his philosophy is very French and expansive.
“The way they play under Sylvain is very refreshing and it reminds me of the way we played many years ago when Trent was coach at Catalans. It’s a philosophy where we play every play to score tries and I’m very excited to be able to play that kind of rugby again under Sylvain.
“It’s good to throw the ball around and create free-flowing moves, it’s very refreshing and maybe Super League would benefit from this but also to survive at the top you have to have experience and stability and I hope I will bring some of that to the team.
“It will be hard to go up, the championship is a tough competition and even more so this year, but it would be a massive achievement for Toulouse and the game in France if we make it.
“We’re not there yet, we just have to be the best team in the championship this year and stay strong enough to be part of the play-offs, that is the only way into Super League for Toulouse.
“To be part of a second French team in Super League, wow, for the game in this country would be huge and I think we would bring energy and enthusiasm to the game at the top level.”
Casty will link up with his new team-mates this week and he can’t wait to run out at Stade Wallon, saying: “It’s one of the best stadiums in France to play rugby, the facilities and the way it is run are absolutely top class.
“I can feel the club is ready to go up, not only with the quality of the squad and coaching staff, but also the administration of the club.
“They are so professional, their philosophy, the way they are working and thinking is already like a Super League club.
“Toulouse is the fourth biggest city in France, it has a large economy in and around the city so there is massive potential for the club. Now we have to do it on the field.”
Casty admitted he may be tempted to return to the French ranks for the coming World Cup competition, after retiring from international duty two years ago to focus on his Super League career.
He said, “Why not? I still feel strong enough and if my performances are good enough of course I would like to have one last challenge in the French jersey. The World Cup is the ultimate for all players and it would be the best way to finish your international career.”
Toulouse Olympique’s 34-year-old forward Frank Winterstein has been released from his contract for family reasons and allowed to return to Australia.
Winterstein played just four games in last year’s curtailed campaign since joining Toulouse but has cited homesickness complicated by the Covid situation as his reasons for wanting to go home.
Don't look back in anger
"It’s been a personal challenge for me to try to stay a bit more composed in games..."
Michael McIlorum tells Catalan Media's Steve Brady about his ambitions in France - and the World Cup and how he wants to "move on" from the disappointments of last season
THE WAITING game for the start to Super League 2021 will last even longer for Michael McIlorum who will miss the opening five rounds while still on suspension.
The Catalans Dragons hooker picked up a six-match ban for a high tackle and “other contrary behaviour” towards his Leeds Rhinos’ opposite number Brad Dwyer in last season’s play-offs, but he won’t spend the time dwelling on the incident as he is too busy focussing on extending his career in France and the possibility of taking up the green jersey of Ireland in the World Cup.
“There’s no point looking back,” McIlorum told Catalan Media.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go but hopefully this year will be a bit better. The biggest disappointment for me was not being able to help the team the following week against St Helens.”
McIlorum said he hadn’t engaged with any of the media aftermath of the incident, adding: “I’m not into social media so I didn’t pick up on any of that. It was what it was and it has been dealt with, it’s time to move on.
“It’s already a long pre-season but it’ll be even longer for me with the five games remaining on the suspension. Hopefully we will have some warm-up fixtures and maybe they could count on the ban but either way I’m going to be missing the first four or five games.
“You can’t dwell on it, you’ve just got to work as hard as you can to be ready for that first game back.”
McIlorum’s reputation as a hard-nosed hooker was already established in the Wigan Warriors junior ranks before he made his first-team debut in 2007 but he says he has worked hard on trying to control the ‘physical’ side of his game.
“I was pretty raw back in the day when I first started but Waney and Madge (Wigan coaches Shaun Wane and Michael Maguire) really helped me to focus more on skill-based stuff and control certain parts of my game.
“It’s been a personal challenge for me to try to stay a bit more composed in games and be a little smarter when I’m coming out of the line so I like to think I’ve developed my game quite a lot.”
McIlorum will have more time than most to develop his skill on the training ground this year as he serves out his ban, but when he is finally allowed to play, he says he will hit the ground running.
“I still feel as fit as I was ten years ago,” he said: “Last season was so stop-start, with long periods of rest, that it was almost like having a year off.
“So while Coronavirus has been an absolute disaster for everyone, in terms of playing careers it’s been beneficial. We’ve never had so much recovery time between games and prolonged periods of training without the weekly collision. All of the players will be on top of their fitness when the new season starts which can only be good for the game.”
For all the physical benefits of a lighter workload, last season took its toll mentally on players, according to McIlorum, who added: “All we want is some consistency and stability now. The time off is one thing but under lockdown you’re not allowed into training sessions or to meet up with the boys and at times it was hard to motivate yourself when you don’t know when you’re going to be playing.
“The biggest problem was the not-knowing. If you’re given a target to aim for, no matter how long it takes to get there, it’s fine, but every time we got going last year we had to stop again, and then we wouldn’t know when we were able to start.
“It’s difficult, mentally, to deal with that when your whole career has been based around rigid targets, dates and fixture lists.
“And we’re playing the waiting game again now. As soon as our coach Steve McNamara knows anything he communicates it to us, but we’re still waiting for dates, and just keeping as fit as we can. All we can do as players is keep in contact with each other and try to motivate your team-mates.”
McIlorum has just turned 33 and he believes he still has lots more to offer the game on the pitch but he admits to feeling the passing of time when he sees former team-mates moving into coaching at top Super League clubs.
“After last year, there’s a lot of anticipation for the new season,” he said: “It’ll be the usual suspects I suppose, with Wigan and Saints pushing for the title, but Leeds have now got Sean Long in there and his input can only be a good thing for them.
“It’s good to see players like Long and Wigan’s Sean O’Loughlin involved in coaching. Lockers will bring a different dimension for Wigan and the players will want to do their best for him, they know what he demands.
“At Catalans we’re aspiring to be as consistently good as those top sides. It’s a work in progress and Steve and Richard (Hunwicks, the Dragons’ Performance Manager) are trying to instil a new culture here.
“They’re doing it from the ground up, starting with the young French kids, so they will know exactly what is expected of them when they do make it into the first team.
“It can’t happen overnight but there has been massive progress already, and I’ve seen it in the three years I’ve been here, the structure is a lot better than when I first came.
“We’re all a part of it, the senior professionals get a bit of a buzz about seeing young French players coming through. We get lots of time with them at training sessions and it’s great that we can pass on our experience to the next generation.
“It doesn’t seem two minutes since I was just starting out and I looked up to people like Lockers, he’d give us his time and you learned so much. That’s our job now at this stage of our careers.”
McIlorum is happy with the Dragons’ recruitment so far for 2021 with former Wigan team-mate Gil Dudson and Castleford’s Mike McMeeken already on board in Perpignan.
“It’s what we missed a bit last year in the middles,” he said, adding: “At times we tired during games and I think these two signings will freshen things up.
“They’re both big lads too and that size will benefit our pack and also support the younger French forwards which we are trying to push through at the moment because they are the future for the Dragons.”
The immediate future for McIlorum is serving his ban, then working on an extension to his career at Stade Gilbert Brutus. Plus the possibility of an appearance in October’s World Cup.
“I’m still keen to play for Ireland if I get the call,” he said. “I’d be very happy to pull the green shirt on. It’s a real buzz for players to take part in a World Cup, it takes you out of one playing and coaching environment and throws you into a totally different set-up.
“You’re working with new coaches and team-mates so you pick up so much from international duty, even for players like myself who’ve been around a bit, there’s always something else you can learn.
“And I’m still learning at Catalans. I love it over here, I’ve got one year left on my current deal and if my performances are good enough this season I’d be delighted if I could stay longer with another contract.
“My life’s over here, I’ve got my friends here and I’d like to stay as long as possible.
“I love everything about the place, it’s a great part of the world and the people are fantastic, wherever you got it’s a friendly bonjour and they want to talk to you.
“They’ve made me feel very welcome and it’s down to me and how I perform that will determine whether I can stay on over here.”
CATALANS DRAGONS have boosted their prospects of success in 2021 by unveiling their latest overseas signing – a new groundsman.
The pitch at Stade Gilbert Brutus is maintained by the local authority in Perpignan who have just announced a new contract with the company that looks after pitches at England football’s National Training Centre in Staffordshire, St George’s Park.
Dragons coach Steve McNamara couldn’t be happier with his latest “signing” as he told Catalan Media: “The new groundstaff only started last week but already it looks incredible and I’m really impressed by what they’ve done so far.
“It’s something that has been needed for a while to be honest as our pitch gets an awful lot of usage because it’s also our training ground.
“It makes a big difference when you’re training and playing on a good field. The playing surface is crucial to the quality of your training sessions, I’ve been back to England over Christmas and I’d forgotten how soggy and difficult the pitches get over there at this time of the year.
“Most clubs treat the quality of their playing surfaces as a priority and we’re all very interested to see what difference it is going to make to the standards of training and playing at the Brutus.
“It’s incredible what they’ve done already and I hope our squad feels the benefit of the new surface throughout the season.”
SIGNINGS ON ICE
CATALANS DRAGONS’ reputation for big-name signings from down under may have to take a year off according to club President Bernard Guasch.
Super League’s French outpost club is renowned for headline-grabbing contracts in the past with NRL stars like Stacey Jones, Willie Mason, Steve Menzies and more recently James Maloney and Israel Folau, but Covid-19 has put paid to any star recruits for 2021.
Catalans have two remaining overseas slots available following the departure of eight first-team players, plus the recruitment of Gil Dudson and Mike McMeeken and promotion of several young French players from the reserves.
The latest to depart was winger Lewis Tierney who has been released from the remaining year of his contract to join newly-promoted Leigh Centurions. The 26-year-old former Wigan Warriors player had found it difficult to secure a first-team slot in Perpignan following the arrival of Tom Davies, also from Wigan, last year.
President Guasch told Perpignan’s L’Independant newspaper that he was still awaiting full details of French government aid following the “financial disaster” of last season and any major signings from overseas would have to wait.
Guasch said Super League clubs across the board will have to exercise prudence just to survive in 2021, particularly as the virus is showing no signs of going away.
“As long as the public does not return, the financial problem will grow,” said Guasch who made it clear that another lengthy period of games without crowds is “not currently viable” for his club.
Meanwhile the Dragons’ Welfare Officer, Sandra Chevalier, has been busy updating the Dragons’ English players and their families on the impact of Brexit upon their lives in France.
Up until the end of 2020 British players were allowed freedom of movement within the EU but now they require residence permits which need to be renewed annually.
The club has until June 1st to secure permits for players, coaching staff and their families, on a similar basis to other overseas players from outside the European Union.
“Obviously, Brexit has implications for our club,” a Dragons spokesman told League Express, “We have seven players and four staff members who are British so we are taking measures to ensure all new documentation is completed for them and their families.”