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.

RÉMI CASTY plays Rugby League with all the subtlety of a boulder thundering down the slopes of the Pyrénees and after 14 seasons in the top-flight there is no sign that this rolling rock is ready to stop.

Casty called time on his international career as Captain of France two years ago so he could concentrate on his role as leader of the pack at Stade Gilbert Brutus. Operating from prop or loose-forward, there is no sign that his ferocious appetite for the game is dwindling and, at 35, he still feels he has a lot to offer.

“I’m not finished yet!” Casty told Catalan Media when asked about his plans for the future.

His team-mates, fellow forwards Mickael Simon and Antoni Maria have both agreed to switch to French Elite One league clubs at the end of this season but Casty isn’t considering that option. His current two-year deal expires this year but he’s keen to roll on.

“I still think I can perform at this level but when my time comes I don’t think I will play anywhere else. I think what Mika and Antoni are doing is fantastic for French Rugby League and they will help to improve the standards in Elite One.

“But when I think I cannot play at the top level, I will finish playing altogether. I won’t leave the game that I love, I will help out anywhere I can in some kind of coaching role if possible but I’m a competitor and I want to play at the highest level every time.

“When I cannot do that, it’s time to stop.”

Apart from a brief stint with Sydney Roosters in the NRL, Casty has been a one-club man for Les Dracs. He was there when the club entered Super League in 2006 and his pugnacious, combative style has been a constant feature of Catalans’ progress on the pitch over the years.

He admits that this year has been the most difficult he has encountered in blood and gold, and his frustrations will be out there for all to see in the opening exchanges of the restarted season (this piece was written before Sunday’s game against St Helens).

“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” he said. “We started the season well, the new players had fitted in quickly and even though we lost the first game, we started to play some good footy.

“The combinations were clicking and we clocked up three wins in a row so it was massively frustrating to have to stop, especially for so long.

“Four months out of the game for a professional player is crazy. We’re all so passionate about playing the game it is difficult to just turn it on and off.

“It will be a physical challenge but mentally too the players will have to deal with the pressure of big games every week, sometimes twice a week. That’s tough on your mind as well as your body.

“It’s going to be difficult because we now have to play a lot of games in a short turnaround and the intensity is going to build as the season progresses.

“At the same time we have to adapt to the new rules and even though I think the changes will be good for the game I think they should have waited until next season to bring them in.

“I think the six-again is a great idea and it really speeds up the game but when we’re playing twice a week and backing up fixtures I think it will take its toll.

“It looks great in the NRL but they only play one game a week so I think they are maybe asking too much of the Super League players at this moment in time.

“On the plus side, we are already preparing to bring in some of the younger French players in our squad because they will definitely be called upon at some stage and, who knows, something really good can come out of this terrible year. Maybe we will discover another French player who will make it to the top.

“Every game is tough in Super League and our opening five games, all involving flights to and from the UK, will test the fitness of our squad. I suppose we are all in the same boat, each team will have their own difficulties when the season has been shortened like this.

“But this is our job, this is what we chose and most of the time we love it,” said Casty with a broad smile.

It remains to be seen whether or not Catalans can continue their early form of this staggered season but the Dragons captain believes a second, and maybe even a third trophy for Super League’s French outfit is within reach.

“Whoever wins Super League this year will have done it the hard way,” he said: “It’s going to be incredibly tough and a massive strain on the resources of all clubs.

“But we’ve certainly got the players and if we can pull together collectively then we will definitely be contending for those top spaces. There are two trophies still to play for and we have as much chance as anyone of taking them.

“When you sign a guy like James Maloney or Izzy Folau it won’t be long before you’re competing for trophies and if we can do this at the end of this year it would be even more special.

“We won’t be perfect straight away because it’s been a long time without training or playing together. Lockdown has had an effect on all of the teams but once we get into the rhythm I think we will be difficult to stop.”

Casty is prepared for a jet-set lifestyle in August, flying in and out of Britain, but he’s got one eye on home as he looks forward to Monday September 7th when Leeds Rhinos will be in Perpignan for the first match at the Brutus since March.

He said, “We have this month in Britain, and they are all tough games, but the one we are most looking forward to is when we return to the Brutus in front of our own supporters.

“I know we cannot have full crowds but just to play in front of the sponsors and season ticket holders will go some way towards repaying their support during this terrible year.

“There is nothing quite like the passion of the Dragons fans and it will be incredible when we see some familiar faces at the ground.

“We have the players to be able to do it this year, there is no reason why we cannot give the supporters something to smile about. This club is very special and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to lift another trophy wearing the blood and gold.

“And who knows, maybe next season too?”

Rémi the rolling stone will rock on

Steve Brady talks to Captain Catalans about future plans

"We have the players to be able to do it this year, there is no reason why we cannot give the supporters something to smile about. This club is very special and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to lift another trophy wearing the blood and gold."

Catalans prepare to join the jet-set as they step back into Super League action

Back in business at the

By Steve Brady

CATALANS DRAGONS have got the green light from the French Government to play home fixtures in front of small crowds at Stade Gilbert Brutus.

As exclusively predicted by Catalan Media two months ago, the Dragons will be allowed to host Super League fixtures in Perpignan in front of sponsors and season ticket holders to the delight of club officials.

Crowds of up to 5,000 will be allowed to assemble from July, with the Dragons lined up to be the first professional sports club in France to benefit from the new rule. Toulouse Olympique would also be at the forefront if the championship season is allowed to restart.

The Dragons had been prepared to camp out in England for the whole month of August because of French restrictions but the relaxation of lockdown laws next month will allow Catalans to play at home.

Coach Steve McNamara was delighted with the news, although he admitted it would force a rethink of the proposed season re-start in August.

“That’s thrown the cat among the pigeons,” he told Catalan Media.

“We were fully prepared to stay for a month in the UK but it seems we won’t have to now. It’s a really positive announcement, not just for us but for the whole game. In England, they generally follow whatever announcements are made in France a couple of weeks later.

“Most of the restrictions that have been made, and then lifted, here in France have been mirrored in the UK the following fortnight so it’s not just great news for us, I think the whole competition will soon be benefitting.

“Obviously, this will have some impact on how the first month of the season pans out now. If we can play at home – which we know we can now as we expect there to be no restrictions in place regarding quarantine in August - then of course it’s better that we play at home.

“There has been a lot of work done looking at fixtures and Sky television’s coverage of games in the first month. And we’ve always said we’d do whatever it takes in a forever changing situation. We were prepared to play our games overseas but once again things have changed overnight and everyone needs to have a good look at things again.

“I’m sure the next set of plans will have to be adjusted again but we all have to adapt and we’re all open to change. The positive news is that it’s going in the right direction and every new announcement is a step forward, not back.”

The Dragons are currently investigating the possibility of renting a private jet to fly the squad in and out of the UK during the opening exchanges of a Super League season restart.

Coach McNamara returned to France last week and said he was impressed by his players’ professional attitude during lockdown. He said: “It’s good to get back and see the players and their families. The players are all in good condition, they look lean and fit. There is only so much of a particular type of training you can do in lockdown but we are starting to see gymnasiums and other forms of training facilities opening up here in France so we’re doing our best to make sure the players take full advantage.

“The players have been doing their own programmes and training in small groups so the plan is to give them a little break before the start of the season if it’s going to begin again in August.”

McNamara said he had no immediate plans for recruitment but the playing group had already been boosted by a “new addition” to the squad.

Tongan prop forward Sam Moa was devastated to learn he needed a second operation on a broken arm in December and he expected to miss most of the season in recovery. However, the 34-year-old international has taken advantage of the pandemic break to return to full fitness.

McNamara said: “Sam’s in for his final checks this week and physically he’s looking awesome. Hopefully when he gets the clearance from the doctors it’ll be like having a new signing at the club. He’s missed a year of Rugby League but he’s had the chance to recover and train and he’s got himself into awesome shape. It’s great to see him back on the field.”

The Dragons’ finances were boosted too at the weekend when local authorities in Perpignan approved its annual grant of 900,000 euros to provide funds for the club.

Brutus!

Back at the Brutus... Catalans can play in front of crowds of up to 5,000

Coach Steve McNamara: "We were fully prepared to play all of our games in the UK for the whole of August but once again things have changed overnight and now it seems we won't have to..."

Sam wants More, More, Moa!

SAM MOA is grafting hard to return to Super League action and promises to put the frustrations of his lengthy injury absence into every tackle on his comeback.

The 33-year-old prop forward has had a bone graft to help repair a badly broken arm he sustained during a match at Leeds last July and he recently needed a second operation after he bent metal plates and broke screws from the initial surgery.

The hard-hitting Tongan international, nicknamed the Lawn Moa for his habit of cutting down opponents on the pitch, told Catalan Media the past eight months have been the worst of his career.

“When I broke the arm I didn’t realise that it was quite a bad fracture,” said Moa, adding: “It wasn’t a clean break but lots of little fragments. The first surgeon put a metal plate in and it should have healed in three to four months. I got to the six-month stage and did some contact work in training and I felt something wasn’t right.

“A scan revealed that the plate had bent and one of the screws was broken. The bone hadn’t fused together properly, what they call a non-union, so I went for a second opinion from one of the best surgeons in the region who specialises in upper limb injuries. He had a lot of experience with rugby union players in Montpellier and the moment I met him I was confident so we got the operation done and it’s come along extremely well.

“I’m not blaming the first surgeon it could be just a mishap or a variety of things, I might have tried to play too soon or pushed myself too hard lifting weights. So they put a stronger plate in this time with some more screws and took a bone graft from my hip which encourages the healing process.

“It’s only been a few weeks since the second op but already my range of movement is much better and I have no pain whatsoever. It feels much different to last time and I feel really confident. It’s up to me now to be diligent with the recovery, be patient and when I’m ready I can release all of my frustrations out there on the field.

“I’ve been bending the pedals on the watt-bike, trying to break records. All players will be familiar with the training bike, it’s a killer, but it’s good for your fitness and helps release frustration when all you want to do is get out there on the field with your team-mates.

“I’m the only guy in the squad who’s been happy with the recent postponement of fixtures (St Helens and Wakefield) because it gives me a couple of games to catch up on later, hopefully. The initial timescale for recovery from such an operation is 12-14 weeks but it’s only four weeks in and already I feel good. This last eight months have been the worst period of my career but I’m confident I’ll be a hundred per cent real soon.”

Moa’s team-mate, former Wigan Warriors centre Tom Davies is also looking at an earlier-than-scheduled recovery from surgery and could feature in the Dragons squad for Saturday’s home clash against Salford. Davies suffered a triple ankle fracture and dislocation during last season’s Good Friday clash against St Helens and he too is raring to go for his new club following successful surgery.

He told Catalan Media: “There’s no real schedule for an injury like this, people heal at different rates. The real guide is how it feels and it’s up to me to make sure I don’t come back too soon and be a hindrance to the team. It’s crucial that I’m at full fitness.

“Rob Parkinson, our physio, knows best and he’ll let me know when I’m ready to restart. There’s a chance against Salford this week and it would be massive for me to make my debut for the Dragons in a home game. I’m absolutely buzzing but we’ll have to see what Rob says first.

“I’ve played here before with Wigan so I know how passionate the French supporters are. I’m looking forward to having them on my side this time. Catalan people are very proud, it’s almost like they’ve got their own little nation down here and they want to welcome you in and I’m very honoured to be a part of their club.”

In other news from Perpignan, the Dragons are still seeking a French television company to provide live coverage of games at Stade Gilbert Brutus for the remainder of the 2020 season. The club is in negotiations with national television channel W9 and, if a deal is struck, Catalans could be back on tv screens as early as this Saturday’s home Super League clash against Salford.

The Dragons are also having discussions this week regarding the possibility of taking their June 27 home game with Toronto Wolfpack on the road with Monaco now emerging as a possible venue alongside other potential stadia in Marseille and Toulon.

By Steve Brady

Israel touches down

Folau's dream debut for the Dragons

CATALANS DRAGONS 36      CASTLEFORD TIGERS 16

WHEN ISRAEL FOLAU looked to the heavens and plucked a Rugby League ball from the sky for the first time in ten years it was as if time stood still with the eyes of the world upon him.

The global media attention brought by the controversial signature of the former NRL, ARU and Australian football star, was bound to overshadow this third round Super League clash but his seventh minute try pressed the re-set button and rolled back the years to his debut as a 17-year-old at Melbourne Storm.

The storm caused by his extreme religious views on homosexuality seemed to subside for just a moment as supporters took a breath to appreciate the skills of an incredibly athletic and skilful football player.

Born-again in Super League, it remains to be seen whether the headlines will die down for Folau, but his team-mate Sam Tomkins did him a favour by stealing the limelight with a virtuoso man-of-the-match performance.

Tomkins tip-toed through the Tigers defence in his unique hop, skip and a jump style for a hat-trick which determined this third Round Super League clash.

Dragons coach Steve McNamara was delighted with his full-back’s contribution, but even more delighted to chalk the first points of the season, he said: “Sam showed exactly the type of player he is tonight. It was good to see him get the man of the match award and good for us to get back to playing Rugby League again after all the headlines and waiting around to play a game.

“We were disappointed with our Round One defeat by Huddersfield then we’ve been scratching around since the Wakefield game got cancelled by the storm so tonight’s result was important to us.

“I have congratulated the players because the past two weeks have been difficult. To have journalists from all around the world descending on this region, chasing players around in cars and following people and all the other bits that go with it, the players have had to deal with that and credit to them.”

McNamara was peppered by the press at the post-match conference but refused to say anything about his new signing apart from his performance on the pitch.

“I knew Israel was ready to play,” said the coach: “I wouldn’t risk him if he wasn’t but we weren’t quite sure how he would cope with the attrition of eighty minutes. I know he’s certainly tired now but he pulled up really well considering everything that’s gone before.

“The plan all along was to get Israel on the field and give him time. I understand the headlines but let him play, let him get on the field and we’ll understand the person a little more after that.”

McNamara is beginning to understand his new look side now as his players dealt pretty effectively with a Danny Richardson-inspired Tigers team. Liam Watts was at his rollocking best up front for Castleford and Jake Trueman and Derrell Olpherts were a constant threat.

But in James Maloney and Josh Drinkwater the Dragons now have the cool-headed control so often lacking in Catalans sides over the years. Combined with Tomkins at his swashbuckling best and the fire and fury of Michael McIlorum, Rémi Casty and the blistering Ben Garcia, the Dragons look a real threat now to Super League’s top tier.

Tomkins opened the scoring just two minutes in thanks to Maloney’s deft pass to raise a cheer from the home supporters. However, the ground fell silent five minutes later when Drinkwater hoisted a kick to the leaden skies. It fell to Folau and he touched down to audible gasps around the Brutus.

Olpherts hit back for Castleford in the 14th minute thanks to a brilliant in-goal collect and re-start by Richardson who raced up the middle of the pitch to find his winger to complete a length-of-the pitch strike.

A Maloney penalty kept the scoreboard ticking then Tomkins and Fouad Yaha worked hard to get Samisoni Langi over the line but Cas’ kept themselves in contention with a try just before half-time – Cheyse Blair benefitting from two penalties in the build-up to his touchdown in the right corner.

It took ten minutes of the second half before Tomkins scored his second with a mazy run to the right and when Olpherts was sin-binned for delaying a re-start, Catalans went in for the kill.

Tomkins and Langi combined for Yaha to score in the 61st minute and despite James Clare’s response four minutes later, it was Tomkins who finished proceedings with his triple just before the final hooter, Maloney adding his sixth conversion of the evening.

Tigers coach Daryl Powell refused to blame the Folau sideshow for his side’s distracted display, he said: “There was no distraction at all tonight, I just thought it was a poor performance from us, we started the first half and the second half badly. Catalans were pretty strong and we were just out-muscled, we weren’t good enough tonight.

“Israel Folau is a top line player, he’s dangerous, obviously on kicks and we found that out pretty quickly but that didn’t have any effect on the game, it was more a poor performance by ourselves. We had the same thing with the first game of the season against Toronto with Sonny Bill Williams but these things have nothing to do with the game. It’s all about us.

“I thought Danny Richardson showed a great piece of instinct and after he created that try our game changed a little bit and we had an opportunity to bring the game back but we were never nearly good enough. It was a game to forget for us, pretty quickly, hopefully.”

Not many will forget Folau’s first foray into Super League – the question now is, will people forgive and forget?

 

GAMESTAR: Sam Tomkins refused to play second-billing with a classy hat-trick.

 

GAMEBREAKER: Fouad Yaha’s 63rd minute strike put clear daylight between the two sides.

 

TOP TACKLE: Matt Whitley’s thundering challenge on Tyla Hepi in the 37th minute loosened the ball and put the Dragons back on attack.

 

HIGHLIGHT REEL: The symbolism of Israel Folau plucking a ball from the heavens and scoring with his first competitive touch of a Rugby League ball for ten years has to stand out.

DRAGONS

29 Sam Tomkins

  2 Lewis Tierney

  3 Samisoni Langi

  4 Israel Folau (D)

  5 Fouad Yaha

  6 James Maloney

  7 Josh Drinkwater

  8 Rémi Casty (C)

  9 Michael McIlorum

14 Julian Bousquet

11 Matt Whitley

12 Joel Tomkins

13 Benjamin Garcia

Subs (all used)

17 Benjamin Jullien

23 Antoni Maria

24 Jason Baitieri

28 Sam Kasiano

Also in 21-man squad

20 Lucas Albert

21 Paul Séguier

22 Arthur Romano

27 Gavin Marguerite

 

TIGERS

  1 Jordan Rankin

  2 Derrell Olpherts

18 Cheyse Blair

  4 Michael Shenton (C)

21 James Clare

  6 Jake Trueman

  7 Danny Richardson

  8 Liam Watts

  9 Paul McShane

16 George Griffin

11 Oliver Holmes

10 Grant Millington

14 Nathan Massey

Subs (all used)

12 Mike McMeeken

19 Daniel Smith

22 Jacques O’Neill

24 Tyla Hepi

Also in 21-man squad

20 Junior Moors

30 Robbie Storey

31 Brad Martin

32 Sam Hall

CATALANS DRAGONS coach Steve McNamara is hoping that the media attention surrounding Israel Folau will begin to decrease following his try-scoring debut for the club against Castleford Tigers on Saturday night.

Folau touched down with his first touch of the ball in the seventh minute of the Dragons’ 36-18 third round win over the Tigers in Perpignan in front of a large number of journalists, photographers and camera crews from France, the UK and Australia.

Sky, BBC, Channel Nine and Channel Seven television crews were at the stadium to follow Folau’s first appearance for the Dragons alongside national newspaper reporters and writers for France’s leading sports publication, L’Equipe, who made a rare trip to Stade Gilbert Brutus.

At a packed post-match press conference, McNamara said: “I have congratulated the team because it has been difficult. To have journalists from all around the world descending on this region, chasing players around in cars and following people and all the other bits that go with it, the players have had to deal with that and credit to them.

“The plan all along was to get Israel on the field and give him time. I understand the headlines but let him play, let him get on the field and we’ll understand the person a little more after that.

“People are judging him on a headline, what they’ve seen on social media. When I sign a player I look at him from a football perspective then I work out what type of person he is. Is he a good person, is he a good player?  Will he add value to the team on and off the field?

“I’m not judging him on any political or religious beliefs. We quite clearly do not believe in what he has said, we have made that clear in our club statement. I’m only looking at the player.”

McNamara was impressed with his new recruit’s performance. Folau played a full eighty minutes, ten years since his last game of Rugby League and nine months after his last game in Australian rugby union.

The Dragons coach added: “I thought Israel played really well. Obviously, scoring with his first touch settled his nerves. He was nervous before the game.

“I was probably most impressed with his defence. He was clearly going to be an attacking threat but it was great to see him play his first game of Rugby League after only training for ten days with the team so it was good to see that sort of defensive performance. It’s really encouraging going forward with him.

“I knew Israel was ready to play, I wouldn’t risk him if he wasn’t but we weren’t quite sure how he would cope with the attrition of eighty minutes. I know he’s certainly tired now but he pulled up really well considering everything that’s gone before. “

Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell said Folau’s debut had not affected his team’s performance, adding: “There was no distraction at all tonight, I just thought it was a poor performance from us, we started the first half badly and started the second half badly. Catalans were pretty strong and we were just out-muscled, we weren’t good enough.

 “Israel Folau is a top line player, he’s dangerous, obviously on kicks and we found that out pretty quickly but that didn’t have any effect on the game. We had the same thing with the first game of the season against Toronto with Sonny Bill Williams but these things have nothing to do with the game. It’s all about us.

“It was a game to forget for us, pretty quickly, hopefully.”

Catalans are working with officials at Wakefield Trinity to rearrange last week’s postponed fixture at Belle Vue. 

Mac's hopes

Toulouse Olympique 10

Catalans Dragons 22

Denise Brady at Stade Albert Domec

ALL EYES were on James Maloney in Carcassonne but it was prodigal son Josh Drinkwater who had Catalans Dragons supporters on their feet with a vintage performance which rolled back the clock.

The decision to allow Drinkwater to leave after a half-season stint in 2018 in which he led the Dragons to Wembley glory did not go down well on the terraces of Stade Gilbert Brutus and he repaid their faith with a clinical display which helped steer Catalans to victory over a dangerous and determined Toulouse side.

His return from a one-year hiatus at Hull KR could be just as influential as the Dragons’ capture of NRL star Maloney. For their first time out together the Catalans’ half-backs looked like they were joined at the hip and their poise and composure shone out in the second half to help the Dragons turn the game around.

Could this be the elusive half-back pairing that Catalans have been waiting for in their eternal quest for consistency? Early signs are positive.

If everyone’s attention was on the Dragons’ new half-back combo, nobody told the championship’s French side who were full value for their slender half-time lead as they dominated the first half with some typically flamboyant and expansive Rugby League.

Toulouse went further ahead just after the break, but three tries mid-way through the second half saw the Super Leaguers flex their muscles as Drinkwater and Maloney formed an instant bond with full-back Sam Tomkins in a brand new back line.

With Michael McIlroum firing on all cylinders and a ferocious stint in the pack by Ben Garcia, Jason Baitieri and Rémi Casty, Catalans created the space for a three-try burst after the interval which settled this pre-season friendly.

Both teams gained valuable match-time in their only competitive fixture building up to the new season and only an injury to Dragons winger Lewis Tierney took the gloss off an entertaining game in front of 4,500 supporters.

Dragons coach Steve McNamara said: “Jimmy put some quality passes together to create tries but it’s his composure that stands out, he keeps people calm around him. When the match was in the balance he just managed to find that field position and rhythm to finish the game off.

“But all our halves did well and they were keen to play the full game. Josh came off with ten minutes to go but Jimmy and Sam Tomkins played the full eighty. It’s a brand new half-back combination so it was important that they spent as much time together today as possible.

 

“The only bad side today is it looks like Lewis Tierney has fractured his eye socket which is really disappointing for him and the squad considering the number of outside backs that are not available for us right now but we’ll get him checked out. It’s not looking great.”

 

It wasn’t looking great in the first half for the Dragons as Toulouse put together some typically flamboyant moves which were a constant threat. Mark Kheirallah’s pace combined with the energetic Stan Robin and Jonathon Ford in the halves kept Catalans on the back foot for long periods.

 

But terrific defensive work from Michael McIlorum and the Dragons pack kept Toulouse at bay and, as often happens, the counter-attack earned the first points of the game. Drinkwater found Maloney 20-metres from the line and the ball was shipped to Samisoni Langi who fed Tomkins to cross in the corner.

 

Toulouse hit back just before half-time when Robin created space for the impressive PJ Lima to score his first professional try and Kheirallah’s conversion made it 6-4 at the break. They went further ahead two minutes into the second half when Robin spun a pass to youth player Etienne Depeyre who crossed in the corner.

 

But the Catalan comeback started with an energetic burst and spin under the posts by McIlorum to level the scores then captain Rémi Casty dribbled between the uprights and grounded the ball to put his side ahead for the first time.

 

Arthur Romano finished off a powerful surge forward from Sam Kasiano to round off the scoring in the 64th minute and, despite battling valiantly to the end, Toulouse couldn’t strike back.

 

Sylvain Houles was not a disappointed coach: “I’m really pleased,” he told Catalan Media.

 

“I think we were committed and we fought for everything throughout the whole game. We had a few youngsters out there and they gained some valuable experience.

 

“No real injury issues following the game, Lloyd White got a bad knock on his leg and Max Puech hurt his neck but nothing major.

 

“We tried some new things with our attack and that’s what probably cost us in the game, we conceded three tries in the second half, but you have to try new things with new players and we learned a lot.

 

“I thought Harrison Hansen was superb in his first game for us. He showed us what he can do on the pitch and Lloyd White was very busy. I knew how good he was on attack but I was expecting him to be so good on defence, he really showed us what he can do today.

 

“Catalans are obviously a very good team and they know what to do on the pitch to control a game. When you look at the playmakers that they have now it was always going to be difficult but I thought we went well, particularly with our defence.

 

“We were quite unlucky at times, we could have scored and then one lucky bounce seemed to change the game but that’s footy. We need to be better than that, certainly at some stages in the game but it was really interesting for me to see what we are capable of.”

 

Catalans will have an opposed training session with Elite One side Lezignan tomorrow (Tuesday) in their only other competitive preparation for their 15th season in Super League but with their new Aussie duo at the helm they seem to have a settled confidence for the first time.

 

The mix and match approach of last season with Tony Gigot rotating with Matty Smith, Tomkins, Langi and Greg Bird proved to be their undoing. This new combination could be the catalyst for Catalans to finally fulfil their rich potential.

 

Second half Super-men seal French pre-season derby

Try-scorer Michael McIlorum

Some French flair from Toulouse as they set their sights on Super League 

Time out for Tierney

CATALANS DRAGONS will intensify their search for new recruits this week following an injury to winger Lewis Tierney  (pictured) sustained during Saturday’s pre-season clash with Toulouse at Carcassonne.

Tierney sustained a suspected fracture of his eye socket and will have medical examinations in Perpignan today (Monday) to establish the extent of the injury.

The Dragons’ 22-10 victory was overshadowed by the loss of Tierney, coming at a time when options among the club’s outside backs are limited following the recent unexpected departure of centre Brayden Wiliame to the NRL.

Coach Steve McNamara admitted that the pressure was now on to find replacements with the new Super League season less than two weeks away.

He told Catalan Media: “It looks like Lewis Tierney has fractured his eye socket which is really disappointing for him and the squad considering the number of outside backs that are not available for us right now but we’ll get him checked out. It’s not looking great.”

Catalans have been linked with a number of prop forwards but their attention may now turn to the flanks with new signing Tom Davies sidelined until at least Round Three of the competition and David Mead and Fouad Yaha both currently unavailable with minor injuries.

Despite the setback, McNamara was pleased with the way his team performed in their only pre-season competitive match which saw James Maloney make his debut alongside Josh Drinkwater.

McNamara said: “Jimmy put some quality passes together to create tries but it’s his composure that stands out, he keeps people calm around him. When the game was in the balance he just managed to find that field position and rhythm to finish the game off.

“But all our halves did well and they were keen to play the full game. Josh Drinkwater came off with ten minutes to go but Jimmy and Sam Tomkins played the full eighty. It’s a brand new half-back combination so it was important that they spent as much time together today as possible.”

Toulouse coach Sylvain Houles was equally as happy, despite the defeat: “I think we were committed and we fought for everything throughout the whole game so I’m really pleased,” he told League Express.

“The main thing is there were no real injury issues. Lloyd White got a bad knock on his leg and Max Puech hurt his neck but nothing major.

“Catalans are obviously a very good team and they know what to do on the pitch to control a game. When you look at the playmakers that they have now it was always going to be difficult but I thought we went well, particularly with our defence.

“We were quite unlucky at times, we could have scored and then one lucky bounce seemed to change the game but that’s footy. We need to be better than that, certainly at some stages in the game but it was really interesting for me to see what we are capable of.”

Dragons still seek TV deal

CATALANS DRAGONS haven’t given up hope on a last-minute television deal to ensure Super League games are broadcast live from Perpignan in 2020.

Club chiefs are a hoping a commitment by Sky Sports to cover five matches at Stade Gilbert Brutus this season will encourage a French TV partner to come on board for the remaining league fixtures.

The decision by beIN Sports to cease coverage of Dragons games at the end of last season left the club seeking a new broadcast deal and meetings have taken place in Paris and Barcelona with executives from several media organisations.

Negotiations are still taking place and Catalans officials are refusing to give up, even if no contract is signed before the season starts.

President Bernard Guasch told Perpignan’s L’Independent newspaper: “I hope that a solution will be found quickly. Maybe we’ll start the season without television coverage before the situation unblocks.

“The Viá network is interested and will give us an answer early next week, and we are still in discussions with Eurosport.”

Vive la difference says coach Houles 

Joe Bretherton
Constantine Mika and William Barthau

By Steve Brady

TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE are on a mission to revive French flair as they strive to scale the ladder to Super League in style.

Coach Sylvain Houles has a reputation for “doing things differently” with unique training methods and flamboyant matchday tactics, encouraging his players to throw the ball around with free-flowing attacking play.

And as the club embarks upon a new era in 2020 at Stade Ernest Wallon, Houles is determined to take his techniques “to another level.”

“Vive la difference,” Houles told Catalan Media. “We will continue to do things our way, we are a French club and we should celebrate that. We will be playing at a fabulous, state-of-the-art stadium this year and it’s important that we raise our standards.

“We like to play with a little flair, it’s what makes French Rugby League so exciting. We have a responsibility to entertain supporters but at the same time we are focused on winning games. Super League is our ambition.”

Toulouse just missed out on promotion from the championship last year, finishing second in the league table but defeats to Toronto and Featherstone in the play-offs put an end to hopes of reaching the top flight.

Houles has brought in four new recruits (Frank Winterstein, Harrison Hansen, Jy Hitchcox and William Barthau) in a bid to take Toulouse one step further.

“Our new players will bring big-game experience into what is already a very talented squad,” said the 38-year-old coach.

“They are established NRL and Super League players and their knowledge and experience is what we’re going to need this year.

“We’ve probably lacked that in the past and maybe that’s where we fell short. We were in situations sometimes where we needed a little more coolness under pressure in the big games, the play-offs. We’ve shown we are capable of competing with the best, we came second in the league last year, but at key moments in games our strategy let us down.

“In our new recruits we have got players who have been there and will know what to do in those crucial moments.”

“We were mentally and physically hurt after that first game in the playoffs when we lost in Toronto and we realised we weren’t quite good enough to beat them into Super League. So we’ve learned from that and we think we have brought in the kind of players that can get us over the line.”

Houles won’t be holding back on attack, however, and he intends to unleash his players on the bigger playing surface at Stade Wallon.

“We have moved to a fabulous new stadium and the pitch is much wider so we have to adapt to that. We are already renowned as an expansive team who likes to let the ball loose but last year we slipped into more mechanical ways, trying to wrestle in the tackle and concentrate on completions and kicks at the end of our sets.

“This year you will see a little more French flair I think. It’s what we are good at and we are going to use every inch of the pitch to our advantage.

“Stade Wallon is in another dimension compared to where we used to play in a little village. We’re back in the city in a famous stadium with top class facilities.

“The pitch has the very latest hybrid technology and it’s a fantastic surface to play on. We played there once last year and we attracted six thousand people. We are hoping that now we are there permanently, more and more people will come to see us.

“So it is important that we play the kind of rugby that people want to see. Of course we need to be winning games but I think you can throw the ball around and still come out on top.”

 

Toulouse captain Constantine Mika agreed with his coach, adding: “Our goal is to get into Super League and the players who have joined us this season have definitely strengthened our side. They’ve settled straight into our group which can be a challenge because we do things differently here at Toulouse.

“Our approach to training and the methods we use are unique, there’s a freshness and creativity that I think is reflected in the way we play the game.

“The new boys are keen to show us what they can do and the existing squad members are anxious to put a few things right that we didn’t do last year.”

The 30-year-old Samoa international started his career at NRL side Newcastle Knight before switching to Super League with Hull Kingston Rovers. Mika switched to French rugby union in Provence before returning to League with Toulouse in 2016.

He added: “Sylvain’s a pretty smart coach and he’s brought a new attitude to the game and the players have bought into it. At the same time we have to do the hard graft because the coming season is shaping up to be the toughest yet.

“It’s not getting any easier with all the clubs strengthening, it’s going to be a real battle this year which should be great for the supporters. As players it’s good to have that high standard of competition week-in week-out.

“We know we have to be better this year, finishing second isn’t good enough.”

 

New signing William Barthau has returned to France following a three-season stint at London Broncos. The 29-year-old former Catalans Dragons back is delighted to be back in his home country and is looking forward to turning out in the blue shirts of Toulouse.

“The French game is unique,” he said, adding: “When I came back from London I had to rediscover French culture and the way we play the game.

“The training methods are so different to anywhere else and we are being asked to look at everything differently. Along with strength and fitness conditioning we have yoga and meditation. The way we put the ball around in practise is so different to any other club.

“It is a refreshing approach and as a French player I’m very excited about the way we are going to play this season. You are going to see a new kind of rugby from Toulouse.

“I don’t want to give any secrets away but I can promise that people will enjoy watching Toulouse play Rugby League this year.

“We’ve got a massive opportunity to make a real mark here in the new stadium. It’s one of the best pitches in the country and we have no excuses now, we’ve got all the support and facilities we need, it’s up to us now to show what we can do.”

 

Former Wigan Warriors prop forward Joe Bretherton is a perfect example of how Toulouse “do things differently.”

Arriving here on loan in 2018 as a 6’5” front-rower, Bretherton is now playing on the wing after trying several positions in the team. He signed a full-tine contract for Toulouse last season and has never looked back.

He told Catalan Media: “It was a massive lifestyle change when I first moved out here. But it’s easy to fit in because the people are just like back home in the north west of England they are so down to earth and friendly.

“The biggest shock for me was the way Toulouse approach the game. I was used to the Wigan way and Shaun Wane’s tried and tested training techniques which have obviously been successful over the years.

“It is totally different here in Toulouse where it’s a very French approach. Sylvain explained to me that he wanted me to bring my experiences from Wigan to help build structure into the team but at the same time he wanted me to adopt to the free-flowing techniques at the club.

“So he’s tried me in the pack, at centre, even out on the wing, and I’m loving it. When you are given the freedom to explore other positions it makes you more aware of what your team-mates do, and more importantly what the opposition are up to.

“It helps with team spirit too because you can’t blame each other when things go wrong. Once you’ve played in their position you understand more clearly what is expected in that role.

“It’s going to be a tough year. It’s now or never for us because every year it’s getting more and more difficult to get into Super League with standards improving all the time.

“We’re in a new stadium close to the city centre and the brand of Rugby League we intend to play this year is sure to bring in more people to help grow the game in France.

“There’s a lot of optimism over here at the moment, new teams like Valencia in Spain are cropping up and Catalans and Toulouse are continuing to grow.

“I feel very lucky to be part of the game’s development in France. Rugby League was massive over here before the war and if we get Toulouse into the top flight it can only be good for the sport.

“Two Super League sides from France would open people’s eyes and encourage more players to try the game.”

 

Toulouse Olympique will face Catalans Dragons on Saturday January 18th (kick-off 3.30pm UK-time) at Stade Albert Domec, Carcassonne. The match is part of Elite One club Carcassonne XIII’s 80th anniversary celebrations.

Metal Mickey!

Goudemand gets a bionic finger...

Catalans star fixes his dodgy digit

By Steve Brady

MICKAEL GOUDEMAND has got a head start in the race to be Man Of Steel in 2020 after replacing one of his fingers with a metal digit.

The 23-year-old Catalans Dragons forward saw last season ruined by a niggling injury to his right hand - sustained during a match against London Broncos in May. Two operations to repair the damage were unsuccessful and now he has had the main joint of his ring finger removed and replaced with a titanium prosthetic.

“Fingers-crossed, that should be an end to it,” Goudemand said with a wry smile.

“It has been the most frustrating time of my life, it ruined last season for me. It was getting to the point where I was going to ask Mr Guasch (club president Bernard who owns a meat processing business) to chop it off.”

The French international admitted the past eight months had been “a nightmare.” He told Catalan Media: “I first did the injury in May, it was a complete dislocation and I had an operation to put it back together but I was too keen to play and I returned too soon and it went again.

“I had a second operation where they put pins in it to support the joint but that didn’t work and then it gave way early in pre-season so I had to have major surgery where they replaced the joint with a titanium one.

“They have assured me that this will be the end of it and I certainly hope so. It’s been one of those stupid, niggling injuries which doesn’t seem serious but causes so much pain and annoyance.

“It came at the worst time too because everything was going so well, I was happy with my form, I had been getting regular first-team experience and the club gave me a new contract and then this happened. It has been driving me crazy.”

Goudemand’s star had been rising rapidly following his debut for the Dragons in 2018. Quickly selected for the national team, the promising youngster was being tipped as the new flame for French Rugby League as a serious of powerful performances helped propel the Dragons to Wembley and historic Challenge Cup glory.

Last season started on the same trajectory until the finger gave way during an innocuous tackle and the past eight months have been the most painful of his career.

He said: “I want to be my best and play to my full potential but every time I caught the ball or went into a tackle I could feel this severe pain and it puts you off your game. For just a finger I’ve missed half a year of my career and it’s incredibly frustrating.

“My first two operations weren’t successful but now I have a prosthetic joint. I’ve got a brand new finger made of steel and it’s only a week after the operation but already it feels better.

“I’m seeing the surgeon next week and hoping to have the dressing removed and start to move the new joint. I should be ready to play in Round Four. I will have to wear some protection early on but if all goes well it should be as good as new, if not better.”

Goudemand is anxious to recreate the early success of his time at Stade Gilbert Brutus, adding: “When I started in 2018 the atmosphere was very good and that was my best year with the team. The spirit was good in the group and we went on to win the Challenge Cup.

“Last season started well but the team spirit was not quite as good. We won at Barcelona in the big game against Wigan but things seemed to fall apart after that.

“I actually missed the Nou Camp game because of this finger. All my family and friends had booked tickets to come and see me play and I ended up sitting in the stands with them. But that’s life, c’est la vie.

“I think this year’s going to be very good for the Dragons. We’ve signed a great new half-back in James Maloney and Drinky’s back (Josh Drinkwater) which is good news for the team as we missed a settled partnership last year.

“Pre-season has been very intense and you can feel the cohesion in the squad. All the players respect what the coaches are trying to do here, it’s very serious at training and we know exactly what we need to do this year.

“But at the same time it is a very friendly club where all the players mix together socially. We have a beer together and spend time with each other.

“I am from Avignon, and there are a few players here from the same town but we mix with all the overseas players just the same.

“It’s very important for a club like ours that all the players are in it together. If we can get some of the spirit of 2018 back, along with the new players, I think it could be a very good year for Catalans Dragons.”

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