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.”

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Paint Brushes

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.

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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.

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SYLVAIN STICKS

"We already have a Super League squad, we put it together last season..."

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Luc LAcoste.jfif

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  

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LET'S EMBRACE THE POSITIVITY

Wigan Chairman Ian Lenagan hails the French revolution

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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."

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"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

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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

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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.”

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"We need to do the basics right but it is in our DNA to throw the ball around like Puig Aubert in
the 1950s"

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.”

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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.

Shaun Edwards.jfif

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.

Fans pic.jpg

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 Navarette.jfif

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

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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.
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 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.”

Fr World Cup.jpg

 IT'S COMING HOME

71 years since the very first Rugby League World Cup, it's heading back
to France

 

"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!

Sam and Ste.JPG

Steve McNamara can't wait to get back to the Brutus after clocking up the air miles

datPhoto1_518ce3613cdf1_[1].jpg
Houles.jpg

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

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.”

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.”

Lloyd White.jpg

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

Ernest Wallon.jpg
Arthur Mourgue.JPG

MAGIC MOURGUE...

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 
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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:
STEVE BRADY

“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.”

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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.”

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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 
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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.”
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"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.”

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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

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A DIFFERENT DRAGON

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"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.”

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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.

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.”

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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
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Paul Seguier

The future is French for new-look Catalans Dragons

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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.

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PAT MORAN following his debut for Avignon at Palau
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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

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.

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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.”

PITCH PERFECT

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.”

Toulouse stay focused on the Super League goal

Steve Brady speaks to T.O. Chief Executive Cedric Garcia (pictured)

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Toulouse Olympique.jpg

TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE will put the disappointment of missing out on Super League 2021 into a fierce campaign for promotion from the RFL championship next season.

Chief Executive Cedric Garcia told Catalan Media they will be working “hand-in-hand” with the city’s business community and French rugby union giants Stade Toulousain to ensure they reach the top-flight in 2022.

“Of course we are disappointed,” he said: “We thought our application was really good and we’d love to have some feedback to let us know why Leigh’s was better. We would like to know from Lord Caine what he thought about our bid and why he made his decision. It’s not about being a sore loser, it’s about knowing where we need to improve.”

Garcia said the club had bounced back quickly from the setback, with new arrivals, Mitch Garbutt, Joseph Paulo and Dominic Peyroux joining the squad and training sessions already in full flow.

He added, “We’re happy with how our players trained on the morning after the decision was made, they were really pumped and there was a good feeling at the club. I think we are the only team in championship and Super League who are back to full training under testing protocols. It shows how hungry we are for the start of the competition.”

TO’s CEO said the power of positivity will fuel the club’s push for promotion, adding: “This club is different, we have a very positive approach and thankfully we do not seem to attract negativity. And we’re different on the pitch too. We’re well known as an expansive team who play the game with freedom and flair so I’d like to think we are the full package.

“We will keep working with those values, we’re not going to change and we’ll keep working until we reach our goal.”

Another difference with Olympique is the unique relationship they have struck with their union bedfellows at Stade Ernest Wallon. Garcia said: “Our relationship with Stade Toulousain is developing and has massive potential both on and off the pitch.

“It started between the two chairmen who knew each other and now we mix and share ideas on an everyday basis. Our offices are next door and just this morning I was speaking with ST’s CEO and general manager about next season’s fixtures and other issues like pitch maintenance.

“It’s a good relationship, we’re working hand in hand. The coaches and players of both clubs have trained together and shared ideas, and one of the major sponsors of ST now have their name on our playing shirt.”

Although the French union champions regularly attract 20,000 supporters to games, Olympique are still rebuilding a support base in a city which once had Rugby League at its heart.

Garcia said: “Toulouse Olympique has always had a strong identity in this city. We’ve been here since 1937 and when you speak to people, they may not come to the ground at the moment but they all know about us so the challenge is to give them a winning team in the top-flight and they will support us.

“The fan base was cited as a problem for our bid but when you look at last year, without any away fans, we drew 6,100 supporters against Toronto. The difference now is that we have an outstanding stadium and facilities so the potential is huge.”

Potential inclusion in next year’s Super League has passed but Garcia said the selection process had been beneficial for the club, adding: “We thought we were ready and going through the application process confirmed to us that we really are. It proved to us that in all aspects, on and off the pitch, our facilities are second to none and our commercial department is thriving.

“Like any organisation there are always areas in which you can improve so we will keep on working to get better and better to be in the best shape possible if we make promotion for 2022.”

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Hansen's heading full circle via the south of France

STEVE BRADY speaks to Toulouse Olympique's hard-hitting H-Bomb
"We're 100 per cent ready for Super League, if they want a team that is competitive, we are the one..."

HARRISON HANSEN is hoping his career will go full circle with a return to Super League via the south of France.

The former Wigan, Salford, Leigh and Widnes forward joined Toulouse Olympique last season and he is feeling “stronger than ever” for the challenge of promotion back to the top flight where he began 17 years ago.

Hansen feels born-again at the championship’s French outfit and told Catalan Media: “I feel fantastic, I know I’m 35 but I feel 25 and I can’t wait for the new season. This year has given us more senior guys a new lease of life, I’ve never had such a long period of recovery, fitness and training.

“At this time of the year we are normally limping around just trying to get through winter but we’re good to go and I feel stronger than ever.”

Hansen’s trademark powerful bursts from second row or loose-forward are being matched by his thrusting support for Toulouse’s promotion, whether it be in 2021 with a successful bid to become the 12th team, or via the normal route the following season.

He said: “We’re 100 per cent ready for Super League. If they want a team that will be competitive, we are the one. We’re a full-time squad which has proved itself at the top of the championship for some time and we’ve added some real quality players for 2021.

“If we get a fair hearing and people are genuinely interested in expansion for the game it should be a no-brainer. Even if I wasn’t at Toulouse I’d still vote them in because of the way they play and the way the club is run.

“The Stade Wallon is made for Super League and one of the best footy pitches I’ve ever been on and if you were to put us in tomorrow we’d be ready because the team that we have assembled is incredible.

“Everything’s there ready for Super League and we’ll prepare for it but if we don’t get the nod we’ll carry on and try to dominate in the championship.

“I definitely think we are the best option because to give it to Bradford, Fev or London is just going backwards. They’ve had their chance, it’s time now for a team with full-on French flair, which is bursting with energy for the challenge.

“The style that coach Sylvain Houles wants us to play in is so attractive to new supporters and we think it will be effective even against some of the teams at the top of Super League.

“Where we are situated, everything’s in one place, the stadium, the airport, the city centre, it’s a simple package for supporters with regular cheap flights and masses of hotels. The infrastructure is second to none.”

The recent acquisition of Grand Final-winners Mitch Garbutt, Joseph Paulo and Dominic Peyroux has added invaluable experience to the Toulouse squad and Hansen, himself a Super League double-champion, thinks Olympique can now match it with the very best.

He added, “We’ve got a pretty much full-strength team once Mitch recovers from his elbow surgery. Joseph and Dom are due to arrive on Sunday (yesterday 6th December) and we’ve already had our first training sessions.

“I played alongside Joseph for Samoa and I know him well, he’s a top player and a really decent bloke. It was a big loss when James Bell left Toulouse, he’s probably the best loose forward I’ve ever played with, apart from Sean O’Loughlin, he was a great ball-player and I think that’s what we’re looking for from Joseph. He should fit straight in.

“It’s the same with Dom, I know he had a lot of offers from other clubs and the fact that he’s decided to come here shows that he’s seen the vision of Sylvain and the potential of so many good players who are already here.

“He probably didn’t get the best chance to showcase his skills at St Helens but with a fresh start in a new culture it will do him the world of good, and us too.”

Toulouse are maintaining a sophisticated video campaign on social media to help boost their case for inclusion in the top-flight.

The Mayor of Toulouse was first to add his influential weight to the cause, followed by a ground-breaking video statement from the President of French rugby union champions Stade Toulousain (who share the city’s Stade Ernest Wallon with Olympique) and then Australian coaching maestro Robinson pledged his support for TO.

Robinson finished his playing career at Toulouse and became coach of the club in 2005 before moving to Catalans Dragons and then returning home to Australia with his French-born wife.

He said, “Toulouse are ready for this, they have been preparing for this for decades. They’ve got a strong foundation in the city with solid support, the club is pushing the limits in business and sport across Europe and it is time for Rugby League to feel the full impact of Toulouse

“They’ve got a good relationship with Catalans Dragons and I know the rivalry will be strong, but they also play a style of footy which will be exciting to watch and fans will love to come and see.”

TO’s Chief Executive Cedric Garcia told Catalan Media: “Over the last couple of weeks, we have worked very hard on our application file. I suppose it is the same for all the candidates, just with the added difficulty of the language for us.

“To get the support of Catalans Dragons President Bernard Guasch, Marc Palanques (French Federation President), Jean-Luc Moudenc (Mayor of Toulouse), Didier Lacroix (Stade Toulousain President) and Trent Robinson is fantastic.

“It boosts us, it gives credibility to our bid, it shows that our club is ready on and off the field and it highlights everything we will bring to Super League.”

A seven-strong panel consisting of three members each from Super League and the Rugby Football League and chaired by Conservative Peer Lord Jonathan Caine, is currently deciding which club will become the twelfth team in the top-flight. The decision is scheduled to be made by 16th December, although there is provision for extended discussions beyond that.

Planes, pains and auto mobiles

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STEVE BRADY'S review of the season for Catalans Dragons, a year which pushed the club to its very limits logistically and financially yet culminated in a top four finish

Five things we learned from Catalans’ season

1: The most unpredictable team in Super League is still the most unpredictable team in Super League. Capable of massive highs and epic lows at any given moment, the Dragons entertain and exasperate in equal measure.

2: Sam Tomkins is a shoo-in for England full-back in next year’s World Cup. Still only 31, Sam has blossomed in the sunshine of the south of France and he’s back to his very best with some jaw-dropping displays for the Dragons.

3: Catalans have never been afraid to make the big decisions and their acquisition of Israel Folau made headlines around the world. Threats of boycotts, protests and rainbow laces disappeared as Covid took hold and Izzy took to the pitch.

4: Steve McNamara’s “whatever it takes” approach to the unique challenges of 2020 was adopted by all at the club. More than any other side the Dragons were tested to their very limits logistically and financially and McNamara’s cool-headed professionalism, dedication and tenacity helped to steer Catalans through the most difficult of times.

5: In President Bernard Guasch, Catalans have a loyal and devoted owner who will do anything for his beloved club. Robust and resilient of stature and character, Guasch has stamped his hallmark upon the Dragons at massive personal expense. There is an immense sense of gratitude from players, staff and supporters in Perpignan for his incredible efforts and sacrifices.

Finishing position

It’s fair to say the Dragons played the percentages to perfection, finishing fourth despite completing far fewer fixtures than their rivals. It’s a miracle that the club got through the season at all so, despite wrapping up the campaign with an ignominious semi-final dismissal by St Helens, all things considered Catalans deserve a medal alongside their hard-earned play-off slot.

Best result

Catalans announced themselves as serious contenders this year with a thumping 40-14 victory over Castleford Tigers at a sun-blessed Headingley in early August. Inspired by an incredible performance from Israel Folau and his two-try winger Tom Davies, the Dragons came back from 14-0 down with a blistering display of attacking rugby. Fresh from a 32-6 defeat to St Helens in the first game after resumption, the Dragons crushed Cas then backed it up with two further demolition jobs on Wakefield Trinity in league and cup.

Worst result

It may seem strange to select a mere 16pt defeat by Wigan as the worst result of the season but the first game at the Brutus following lockdown and a string of strong performances in the UK should have been a celebration after six months of deprivation in Perpignan. The limited 5,000 crowd had nothing to shout about until a couple of late tries spared the Dragons’ blushes. Defeats to the Warriors aren’t unusual but this hit home like a hammer and put the seeds of doubt back in supporters’ minds.

Best player

Ben Garcia: Often overlooked by the more myopic of observers who are easily drawn to the flamboyant brilliance of Sam Tomkins and imposing presence of Israel Folau and James Maloney, Garcia is the fiery heartbeat of the Dragons. Operating from loose, second row or hooker, Garcia canters around the pitch like a Catalan bull, destroying everything in his path. In attack or defence his controlled and disciplined aggression has been the real driving force behind the Dragons’ top four finish. Top tackler by a mile this year, his consistently ruthless and professional approach is a model for younger players at the club.

 

Best young player

Arthur Mourgue: Massive potential for this young French international which was all too briefly evident when he stood in for injured or suspended players. He would have featured more prominently in normal times and the club will find it difficult to keep hold of such prodigious talent if he cannot break into the first team.

Best overseas player

Tom Davies: His energy and enthusiasm is infectious and his explosive power and pace on the outside of Israel Folau would surely have made him Super League’s top try scorer if only Catalans could have completed more fixtures. His comeback from horrific injury at Wigan is a beacon of hope for any player who suffers on the pitch. His attitude and appetite for the game is truly inspirational but he probably summed up his approach much more succinctly when he told me: “I just pin my ears back and go full pelt for the line”. Watch him fly next season.

Try of the year

It’s a tricky one with a succession of dazzling long range strikes from Tomkins, Folau and Davies to contend with but the one that resonates most is Sam Kasiano’s 80-metre burst and interplay with Sam Tomkins against Wakefield Trinity at the Brutus. Kasiano had been in indifferent form in the run-up to this 40-8 victory at the beginning of October but he had the French supporters in open-mouthed awe as he burst through the defence and ‘sprinted’ with all the grace of a runaway truck and then rocked the foundations of the Puig Aubert stand by collapsing over the try-line in the corner.

 

Quote of the year

“Do they take us for Paris hams?” President Guasch after the RFL gave byes to the big four clubs in the sixth round Challenge Cup draw because of the withdrawal of Toronto Wolfpack and championship clubs then asked the Dragons to play an ‘extra’ round against Wakefield. Guasch added: “The competition cancelled the Magic Weekend this year and it has made up for it with its Magic Draw.” Incidentally, a Paris Ham is a derogatory term meaning weak or foolish.

 

Image of the year

Players gathered in the car park at a windy Stade Gilbert Brutus frantically working out how to fit everyone into cars for a last-gasp Wacky Races-style dash to Toulouse airport after their private jet was blown off course in September. The Dragons made kick-off against Warrington on time then had to make the epic trek in reverse, arriving home at 5am the following morning.

Defining moment

When Israel Folau plucked the ball from the heavens and scored with his first touch on his debut for the Dragons, it was a watershed moment. The game that prides itself on inclusivity was bitterly divided by Folaugate and many people sought his exclusion from the sport. When he rose above all others against Castleford at the Brutus in February, ten years after he had last touched a ball in competitive Rugby League, it was like time stood still. French supporters and the world’s media gasped in witness of something fundamentally profound. It’s been the most difficult of times, the strangest of seasons and this ‘strange’ moment I think defines the almost surreal nature of the 2020 season.

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Get ready for the French Revolution

SYLVAIN HOULES believes Rugby League in France will go supernova if Toulouse Olympique join Super League.

The 39-year-old coach says his team is “ready to roll” and excited by the challenge ahead, whether that is a tilt at winning the championship in 2021 or being allowed early entry to the top flight because of Toronto Wolfpack’s departure.

“Oh yes, we really believe in it,” Houles told Catalan Media.

“The whole process of Toulouse aiming for the top tier started 20 years ago and now we are really ready for it. This team is in place and the team outside of the playing squad has created the structure necessary to compete in Super League.

“We are playing in a new stadium that is one of the best in the game and the current squad is very capable of gaining promotion next year.

“Obviously, if the decision is made to replace Toronto with ourselves then we would be looking at maybe three or four more recruits to strengthen the playing group.

“That’s the only thing we would need to do because everything else is in place. And it won’t be hard to find players, there is a lot of quality on the market at the moment.

“So we do believe in it, and if the right time is now, we are ready, we are really excited about it.”

Olympique have a healthy relationship with the first French team in Super League, Catalans Dragons, but Houles is hoping for a fierce rivalry on the pitch which will help boost support for the game in France.

He said, “It has always been our vision to have a French team alongside Catalans and it would be an incredible boost for the game here.

“It is our responsibility to create this on-field rivalry. We’ve got great respect for each other off the pitch but as sportsmen we want to be competitive for 80 minutes.

“It’s my vision that we have a Super League fixture list where supporters in France look eagerly for the dates when Toulouse play Catalans and vice-versa. If we can do that I truly believe the game can grow fast and strong very quickly.

“And also in England, I think Toulouse have a lot to bring to the game because of the style we play, a growing French influence on the game would create a lot of interest I think.”

The decision not to allow Toronto back into Super League next year may have opened the door for clubs like Toulouse but coach Houles feels bittersweet about the Wolfpack’s apparent demise.

“It’s a tough one,” he said: “We’ve played Toronto many times over the past two years, we’ve lost seven games and won just one so they were our biggest enemies if you like.

“But I have to say we enjoyed going there, we enjoyed the whole experience with the crowds at the stadium and the games were always very physical and competitive.

“So the whole experience was good but it was also very tough too. Coming from Toulouse, we had to take an extra flight to the UK before crossing to Canada. We had to stay one more night in London before the flight to Toronto and it’s probably what cost us a couple of times against our promotion rivals Featherstone.

“We were losing a couple of days more than any other team in the championship. Going to Toronto and then playing Featherstone five days later took its toll on us.

“Winning the championship is tough enough but every time we played in Toronto we lost two or three days on the trip.

“I think it’s very hard to ask pro sportsmen to do this so in that respect we will not miss going to Toronto. But it’s a real shame because of all the hard work they have put in, I’m not sure what will happen to the club now.

“I feel really sorry for the players and supporters but I won’t miss the demands of travelling there.” 

Houles has a reputation for thinking outside of the box and he is keen to foster relationships with the French rugby union champions who ground-share at Stade Ernest-Wallon.

He added, “There’s a lot of interest in Rugby League down here, and even in the rugby union world they know what we are doing. We share a stadium with Stade Toulousain and their coaches are very interested in what we are trying to do at the moment.

“We are trying to breed a very open mind at our club, we have shared coaching sessions with the Stade, we have a very strong relationship with Catalans, and it seems to be working.

“We’ve played some union with Stade and we took some things out of it, as I’m sure they did too. They are like ourselves, they like to play wide, expansive rugby so our relationship is working very well.”

Houles’ new-look squad for 2021 was expected to come together today (Monday) for the first time since Coronavirus hit the game eight months ago but the initial training session has been postponed.

French international hooker Eloi Pelissier is the latest addition following the recent acquisition of Mitch Garbutt and Joseph Paulo plus the rumoured arrival of fellow St Helens star Dom Peyroux and coach Houlés is keen to get to grips with his players.

He said, “We were supposed to start this coming Monday but it looks like we won’t be playing before March now so we’ve pushed it back another three weeks and we will start training on the 30th of November.

“Because of lockdown we are keeping in touch online and the players were all keen and ready to start on the ninth so they are a little disappointed and frustrated at the moment. But they are keeping fit which is so important because from day one we need to be ready to start our normal pre-season programme.

“They’ve been disappointed and frustrated since mid-March so I try to tell them that we are nearly towards the end of this period, we have to accept what’s happened and move on.

“We’re being positive at all times, we are all speaking about the new signings we have made, the players read the newspapers and they can see that this club is ready to go to another level. And that adds to the frustration because we can’t wait to start and put all of this planning into practise.

“We’ve been working very hard with the Directors of the club over the past seven years, and gradually we’ve been building step-by-step. We have to be very careful where we put our money, into new players, staff or structures, and this year has been the most difficult obviously because of the virus.

“But we’re very happy with the support we have been given and we feel we are in a better position than ever to make a challenge for Super League.

“We are all working in the same direction and I think our recruitment and retention process over the years has created the best-ever squad for Toulouse. Over the past two years that process has intensified and I’m very happy with our group for 2021.

“All we can do is continue to plan for next year’s championship – if the rugby gods decide otherwise, we will grab the chance and I’m pretty sure we could bring something really exciting to Super League.”

CATALANS DRAGONS have thrown their weight behind Toulouse Olympique’s bid to become Super League’s 12th team in 2021.

Club President Bernard Guasch is keen to see a second French club in the top flight and he put a message of support on social media last week.

“I have always supported this Super League project,” said Guasch, adding: “The time has come, it’s time to reward the great job done by the head coach Sylvain Houles. For years, Toulouse have been in the top places of a really tough competition in the championship.

“Toulouse is the fourth biggest French city with big facilities like the famous Ernest Wallon stadium. Just imagine two French derbies in Ernest Wallon and Gilbert Brutus, it can be the renewal of the French Rugby League and its national team. We need Toulouse in Super League.”

Dragons coach Steve McNamara was also keen to see the friendly co-operation between Catalans and Toulouse develop into competitive rivalry on the pitch.

He told Catalan Media: “It’s a fascinating scenario, it’s up to Super League to decide whether or not to allow an expansion club to come in after another expansion club has left.

“There is a lot of debate over the ins and out of the Toronto situation but Toulouse are certainly very keen and they’ve signed some really good players probably with one eye on Super League, whether it be for the coming season or the one after that.

“I’ve got a very good relationship with their coach Sylvain Houles, we spoke last week to make sure we were both on the same page and up to date on what’s happening in the world of Rugby League.

“We have regular catch-ups and we’ll continue to do that.

“But it would be a huge boost for the game over here, and the game as a whole, if Toulouse joined Super League.”

Steve Brady interviews Toulouse Olympique coach Sylvain Houles

Catalansback bid for top flight 

Photo by Bernard Rieu

It's a shambles says

Sam

SAM TOMKINS can’t wait to see the back of 2020 – a season that he says has turned into “a shambles”.

Currently recovering from Covid, locked down at his home like the rest of France under strict new government rules, the 31-year-old Catalans Dragons full-back admits the past nine months have been the most challenging of his career.

“It’s massively frustrating,” he told Catalan Media: “And it’s the same for all players, clubs, fans and broadcasters, everybody’s in the same boat.

“The worst part is the unknown, there have been so many changes and probably more changes to come before the end of the year so that’s the worst bit, not actually knowing where you stand and how the season’s going to play out.”

The stop-start nature of the season, last minute fixture cancellations and rule changes have taken their toll, according to Tomkins who said players were bracing themselves for another major change following today’s (Monday) Super League meeting where a re-jigged play-off system is on the agenda.

“The whole season is a shambles really,” said Tomkins: “Decisions are being made this week and every club wants a different scenario going to the end of the year. Some clubs have bigger voices than others so we will just have to wait and see what comes of the meeting.

“Whatever it changes to, we’ll just have to get on with it. That’s been the message for the whole season, you have to deal with whatever changes come your way and that’s what we have done, like every other team.

“Covid has turned the season into a total mess, it’s meant it can’t be a truly fair season with different clubs playing different amounts of games and Salford couldn’t even field a team last week so I think a lot of clubs will be happy when this season is over.”

Everyone at Catalans seemed to be unhappy last week with suggestions by Leeds Rhinos coach Richard Agar that the Dragons had “dodged” several fixtures against some of the stronger teams this season.

Tomkins said the suggestions were ridiculous, adding: “For someone to say we are dodging fixtures is absolute rubbish, it’s based upon nothing. You’ve got to bear in mind that before lockdown in March, Leeds didn’t come to us because they thought somebody had Covid and it turned out they didn’t.

“We didn’t claim they were ‘dodging’ us did we?

“So it’s rubbish, no-one’s dodging fixtures. We’ve certainly got no reason to try and dodge games, we want to play as many as we can just the same as any other team.

“Anybody with any sense involved in a rugby club would know that you wouldn’t be dodging fixtures in a year where you’ve just played 12 games.

“We’ve done everything we can at the club to make things as safe as possible but we’re in a global pandemic. People are going to catch a virus that’s stretching across pretty much every country in the world.

“Castleford have just got twelve positive results and no part of me thinks that they have done that on purpose. We’re in a pandemic, people are going to get the virus, it’s as simple as that.

“For someone to think that we’d be dodging games is a ridiculous idea and it’s quite rich coming from a coach that ‘dodged’ a round of the Challenge Cup when it got redrawn, meaning they had to win just three games to win a trophy and is now sat in fifth and asking for a top-five play-off system rather than a top four.”

Tomkins admits that he and fellow players are concerned about the effect Covid has had on their careers and the uncertainty of how long the virus will continue.

He said: “Everybody has taken a wage cut this year and we’re lucky in that we’ve got Bernard (Guasch) as a chairman who is doing everything in his power to make sure the players are looked after and we appreciate that but there will be a time in the future, if things don’t change, where the question will be asked: is it feasible going forward?

“Pretty much every club is thinking at the moment ‘what if this continues?’ because nobody expected it to go on as long as it has. If it goes on very much further then it’s going to be tough for anyone to survive.”

Tomkins is a survivor, he was one of several Catalans players who recently failed virus tests, but apart from minor symptoms he has fully recovered and is ready to play his part in whatever fixture list remains after Monday.

“I’m not playing against Salford,” he said: “I was one of the players who tested positive for Covid last week. A few others will have to sit the Salford game out but we should be okay for the next fixture, which is provisionally St Helens at home on Thursday.

“The only symptom I had was a loss of my sense of smell and taste which hasn’t come back yet which isn’t great but it means I’m eating healthier – there’s no need for chocolate and other rubbish now.

“Everyone who contracted Covid here will miss the Salford game and we would have been okay for Saints. However, I think that might be changed now, I don’t think we’ll be playing St Helens.

“It’s disappointing that we might not now be playing a home game for the rest of the season. As players we love playing at the Brutus, it’s a real carnival atmosphere and everybody loves playing in front of your own fans.

“We’ve been lucky in a way, we’ve had a few games where we’ve been allowed limited crowds so at least we’ve had a bit more of a taste than other clubs but we’re still very disappointed.

“It looks like we will be in the play-offs and it’s going to be a pretty short system. Whoever’s in the top four, five or six, whatever system they choose, will have to get through a few weeks, win three games or so and you’ve got a title.”

Tomkins feels sorry for fellow players who go on to win the Grand Final as he believes they will miss out on the full experience of what could be the pinnacle of their career.

He said: “It’s a shame but whoever wins it this year will have a star next to it. I’m disappointed for whoever it is that makes the final because if that’s the only final you ever make I’d be gutted for them.

“The experience of playing a Grand Final is walking out at Old Trafford, the build-up through the week, seeing 60,000 fans, that’s what makes it.

“So to play at Hull on a Friday night in front of nobody is going to be a massive anti-climax.

“There will still be a title won and Grand Final rings given out which we want to be a part of but I’m still disappointed for players who might only ever play in that one Grand Final.”

A naturally up-beat and positive character, Tomkins is balancing the disappointment of this season with the excitement and optimism of next year’s Rugby League World Cup.

Selected in the training squad by England coach Shaun Wane, Tomkins can’t wait for the tournament which he says will be the perfect antidote to the Covid gloom of 2020.

He said: “It would be ideal, wouldn’t it, if after all this by next year we got back to some normality. What better way to showcase Rugby League than a World Cup on home soil.?

“That’s the dream for everyone at the moment, it would be a perfect ending to what has been a terrible, terrible period of time with Covid.

“A home World Cup will be unbelievable and I think we’ve got a great chance of doing something special in it.”

Like other England squad members, Tomkins is in regular communication with his former mentor at Wigan who, it seems, is just as frustrated as his players.

He said: “Obviously we’re very disappointed that we can’t be playing this year but we have regular meetings online with coach Shaun Wane where he shows us footage of games we’ve played in and lets us know what he thinks is good or not so good and areas we need to improve upon.

“He’s in constant contact but it’s not exactly as he would like, Shaun is a very hands-on, full-on coach so for him to not be able to see his players’ faces and get some training done with us then it must be massively frustrating for him.

“I see he has just extended his contract so he knows he’s got the time to work with us and there will be plenty of games ahead for him as England boss.”

There may not be plenty of games left in Super League 2020 for Sam Tomkins who, like many others, will be happy to put this year behind him.

Currently sitting top of League Express’s Albert Goldthorpe Medal table following some outstanding performances in the few games Catalans have played this season, he has many reasons to be cheerful. But the “shambles” of season 2020 isn’t one of them.

“The experience of playing a Grand Final is walking out at Old Trafford, the build-up through the week, seeing 60,000 fans, that’s what makes it.

“So to play at Hull on a Friday night in front of nobody is going to be a massive anti-climax."

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Tomkins calls time on 2020's

"total mess"

Interview: Steve Brady

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Matt Whitley's keen to continue at Catalans

England Knight wants many more days in the south of France

INTERVIEW: Steve Brady

MATT WHITLEY is planning to take extra French lessons as his career continues to flourish at Catalans Dragons.

The England Knights second-row is coming to the end of his current two-year contract in Perpignan but he’s keen to continue his career in the south of France, to improve his playing skills and also brush up on the language.

“I’d love to stay on if possible,” Whitley told Catalan Media, adding: “I can see myself staying, I’m enjoying it over here and my family’s enjoying it. I think we’re in a good place at the minute.

“It’s a great place to live and the weather and lifestyle are so good. The language is still a bit of a struggle, I can just about ring up a restaurant and book a table, order a pizza, or say hello and greet people but any more than that is pretty difficult. I’m working on it.”

The 24-year-old former Widnes Vikings forward has been a big success with supporters in Perpignan after some outstanding performances in the Blood and Gold and he’s keen to keep the relationship going.

He said, “It’s a great place to play, the supporters are so passionate and it was so good to get back in front of them last week, I just wish it would have been a better result for them (Catalans lost at home 12-28 in front of a virus-limited crowd of 5,000).

“We’ve got a run of five games at home coming up soon so we’re really looking forward to that and hopefully we can put a smile back on their faces.”

Whitley said the Dragons hadn’t dwelt too much on the Wigan defeat, adding: “We’re disappointed of course but we’ve dusted ourselves down and we start again in the league against Warrington on Thursday.

“We’re looking to put things straight. We won’t dwell too much on it.”

He said there was an air of positivity among the Catalans players, despite the demands of this most difficult of seasons.

“We can’t sit around whinging about the fixtures or the fact we’re travelling to England every week,” he said: “It’s been an unbelievable year where anything can happen, we’re just grateful to be back playing after spending so much time out of the game.

“We’re focusing on week to week, training and the games, not looking too far ahead. We’re confident in ourselves and our ability to win enough games to get us in that top four.

“We’re aware that we need to catch up on a few games but that is out of our control. There’s no moaning at all, we know the task ahead but we’re just grateful to be playing.

“As players we’ve probably never had such a long period of time not training or playing since we were little. Six months is a very long time to be away from the sport we all love.

“And we’ve got to be grateful that we’ve still got jobs. There are a lot of people that have lost their livelihoods because of Covid so in many respects we’re very lucky. I still feel lucky that I’m able to play the game I love and class it as my job.”

Whitley is also grateful for the learning curve he has experienced in the south of France. He said: “I’d like to think I’ve improved as a player since I’ve been at Catalans and that’s probably down to the coaching I’ve had from Steve (McNamara) and being around some more experienced players like Sam Tomkins and Greg Bird, players with a lot of experience and knowledge.

“You pick a little bit up from everyone to be honest, we’ve all got something to offer, but the ones like James Maloney who have been at the very top of the game in the NRL and State of Origin, they have been there and done it all so it’s really beneficial to be around them.

“I’ve learned an awful lot and I feel stronger physically. I’m a bit heavier and a bit leaner than what I was before I came to France, I’ve just got to try and stay away from the baguettes really, you get then with every meal over here.”

Catalans coach Steve McNamara will be hoping there’s enough bread left in the club’s salary cap to secure Whitley’s services for the immediate future.

JUSTIN MURPHY has returned to his former club Catalans Dragons to join the coaching staff of reserve team St Esteve XIII Catalan.

The 42-year-old Australian was the Dragons’ top-try scorer in a dazzling three-season stint from 2006-08 and after returning to Australia, he came back to France last year to take up the coaching reins at Toulon Metropole in the Elite Two division.

He has now joined fellow former Aussie Dragon Greg Bird as joint coaches of the Catalans’ reserves who are current French champions.

Bird and Murphy have replaced St Esteve coach Benoit Albert who has left the club.

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Origin is the ultimate competition, please don't change it

True Blue James Maloney calls for caution...

INTERVIEW: Steve Brady

STATE OF ORIGIN veteran James Maloney is pleading with NRL chiefs not to wreck his childhood memories of the “ultimate competition” in Rugby League.

Maloney was part of last year’s series-winning New South Wales side and has worn the Blue shirt with pride on 14 occasions but he fears changes to the NRL’s showpiece event could ruin the series forever.

Proposals to hold Origin as a regular season-ending tournament and the potential relaxation of player-eligibility have rattled 34-year-old Maloney, currently on a three-year-deal with Super League club Catalans Dragons in the south of France.

Speaking under virus-control lockdown at his villa near Perpignan, Maloney told Catalan Media: “Playing Origin after the season finishes is going to be a real challenge. I understand we have no choice this year but I’m not sure it’s the way forward after that.

“You’ve got guys who are wearing bumps and bruises from a complete season and then you’ll have players who may not have been in finals contention so they won’t have played footy in a month. As a player, at the end of a long campaign, how do you keep fit for a month if you’re not in the finals then you have to perform in one of the biggest showcases of the sport? It’s the ultimate competition.

“Then there’s the guys who’ve made it through the finals and they’re pretty cooked. We’ll have to wait and see how we go this year but I think, logistically, it’s probably best where it already is in the middle of the season.”

Current Origin rules dictate that only players eligible to play for the Australian national team can take part in the series but ARL Chairman Peter V’Landys recently suggested the door could be opened to other NRL players who have chosen to represent heritage nations such as New Zealand or Tonga.

“I probably don’t agree with that either,” said Maloney.

“There’s a lot of passion and pride in who you represent and who you play for. There’s such a long-standing rivalry and I don’t think you can keep that depth of feeling and everything that Origin represents if you’ve got blokes that are just flying in from wherever who don’t have any real ties to the competition.

“As a kid you grow up watching the game and it’s Origin you want to watch. The pride in the jersey, either Queensland or New South Wales is bred into your childhood. You grow up wanting to be a part of that so anything that could take away that would dilute the competition.

“The product is good the way it is, it’s not as if we don’t currently have the best of the best playing each other. We haven’t lost any supporters of Origin because the sides aren’t strong enough so I just don’t think it’s an avenue we need to go down.”

Apart from tinkering with Origin, Maloney is a big fan of V’Landys’ plans for the game in Australia.

He added: “I think he was a very good appointment, he’s got a pretty good track record in horseracing and he’s doing a great job now with Rugby League.

“The game took a lot of criticism when they tried to push the boundaries in the face of this virus but since then everyone has jumped on our coat-tails. They let the NRL do the hard yards and take all the media drama and then they said if they can do it, we can do it.

“He’s shown strong leadership and he’s not been swayed by public opinion, I think he’s done a really good job.

“Rugby League is such an important part of Australian life, it’s one of the dominant sports whereas over here it’s still more of a minority sport behind soccer and other games. It’s big deal in Australia and it’s in good hands at the moment.”

Maloney has had a stop-start beginning to his Super League campaign with Covid-19 playing havoc with the fixture list. His Dragons team are flying high in the table but have just been hit with a two-week period of quarantine isolation after three players tested positive for the virus.

Maloney tops the points-scoring tables despite Catalans having played three games less than any other team and the three-time Aussie Grand Final winner couldn’t be happier with his new Mediterranean lifestyle in the south of France.

His wife and four children have settled quickly into French village lifestyle and he added: “We’re loving it, the club’s been really good to us as a family and we’re happy as Larry over here.

“The kids are really good with their French now which is a big help for us. There are no international schools so the kids went straight into the local school, they were thrown in at the deep end which has given them some struggles but now they’re all speaking really good French and they’re teaching us, we’re picking up bits and pieces.

“We’ve become really good friends with our neighbours and we’ve met other families through the kids at school. Everyone’s been really welcoming and it’s a lovely spot to live in.

“We’ve done a little bit of travelling but obviously with the virus it’s been more difficult to travel freely. Before lockdown we managed a ten day tour de France and we dropped into Spain, down to Barcelona but the country’s been pretty hard hit by the virus so we haven’t had much chance to return.

“When the season ends we’re planning a European tour around December – that’s if the season ever finishes. The way things are going this season could roll on for five years.”

Maloney brushed off recent suggestions that he was ready to cut short his Super League stint for a swift return to the NRL.

“I wasn’t too fussed when stories cropped up in the Aussie press about me coming home early, I’ve been in the game long enough to know that there’s a lot of stuff that gets written that doesn’t have a lot of truth in it. I’ve got no intentions of heading back.

“I was happy that we made the decision to come and we’re even more happy now - although it was good to see Sonny Bill Williams back in a Roosters jersey so maybe when I’m forty I can have another run in the NRL.”

Maloney keeps up with the Aussie competition and says standards have been high so far this year despite the challenges the game faces.

He said, “Penrith looked really good in the games I’ve seen and I’ve got a soft spot for them having just come from them. They’ve got a lot of good young players there who are performing well so I’d love to see them win it.

“It’s good to see so many young English players testing themselves in the challenge of the NRL this year too. The more players that do it the better, it opens up doors for more and more which can only be good for the game.

“We’ve seen a Pommie influence recently which has got the scouts alerted and people are looking at Super League now to find the next one that can do it which all helps in the evolution of players and clubs, both in Australia and the UK.”

Maloney’s naturally chirpy disposition has helped him deal with two stints of virus-control isolation as Covid-19 continues to hold a grip on life in Europe.

He said “It is frustrating, I suppose the difference between the first lockdown and this one is you’re being tested every couple of days now. We’ve had a few guys who’ve picked it up but they are in no danger. And even though we are testing negative now we have to go through this isolation. It’s not ideal but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

“It’s hard to distance yourself from your wife and kids and while it may sound good to be told to go home and relax, for professional players who are used to training, playing, and training again, it’s a challenge. I’ve shown no signs at all of the virus so hopefully we can knock out another week and we can get back to playing some footy real soon.

“It’s a strange sort of world we’re living in at the moment and you’ve just got to roll with the punches, take it one day at a time and do as you’re told.

“We had a month of back-to-back footy and we were just getting into the swing of things, back in that routine of playing, recovery, training and playing and we’re forced to take a two-week break. It’s frustrating but you can’t do anything about it.

“There’s a virus and this part of the world has been hit hard. I’m sure we won’t be the last team that has a couple of players affected. The only good news for us is the demographic that we have as young, healthy footballers, it doesn’t see to do us much harm.

“In the big scheme of things the fact that we need to stop footy for a couple of weeks isn’t too important. The main thing is that there are no serious health issues with the guys who have picked the virus up.

“You can always spend time looking at the negatives in every situation but it won’t do you any good. We’re sitting in a reasonable position in the league table at the moment and the biggest challenge for us coming out for our first game back will be continuing the good form.

“First out this season we were a long way off at home against Huddersfield, then we started picking up wins. It was the same again after virus lockdown, we came out cold against St Helens and then strung a few wins together. It’s important that we don’t repeat the process when we get back next week.

“There’s a bit of history for us that says we’ve missed the mark both times we’ve resumed playing so that’s the challenge for us now.

“I’ve played Wigan twice, two World Club Challenge games I’ve had were both against Wigan. In 2014 they came out to Australia to play the Roosters and we had a pretty comfortable win and then I played against them with Cronulla and they managed to beat us so I’m well aware that they are a very strong club and they’re going alright this season.

“I watched them at the weekend just to have a look at them and I don’t think they are unbeatable by any stretch of the imagination but they’re playing good footy at the moment and we’ll have to be good.

“I really enjoyed the atmosphere when we played at Stade Gilbert Brutus at the beginning of the season but this game is so important for the club. We’ve run into some unexpected heavy costs because of the virus. We’ve had to charter flights every week for the past month so it will be great to get back and play in front of a crowd will be really important.

“I know we can’t pack out the stadium but we can get some supporters in and get some money back into the club’s pocket. Everyone’s taken a financial hit because of this situation and the club’s no different.

“We’d like to give the supporters something to shout about and the good thing for us is that we’ve got a few more games in since the restart than some other clubs. We had a couple of make-up games so we started a little bit earlier and we’ve got four games under our belt.

“I was watching the footy the other week and Salford had only played one game since restart which is not ideal for anyone but nothing’s ideal this year is it?

Maloney is looking forward to next year’s Rugby League World Cup and while he won’t be wearing the Green and Gold of Australia, there is another green shirt that he has an eye on.

“Next year’s tournament in England is looking good,” he said: “The usual favourites will be strong contenders but teams like Tonga are getting much stronger and it’s great to see. The stronger and more diverse the international game is has to be a good thing.

“I still think they’re probably a little bit off winning the comp but it will take time and they are building towards that. It’s good to see guys pledging their allegiance and it’s very clear from the way they play that they are proud to represent their Tongan heritage.

“As for me, I think I’ve got Irish descendancy, and I’ve tried the odd pint of Guinness so there might even be a chance of me playing for Ireland with a bit of luck.”

French prodigy destined for the top

Sam Tomkins says Arthur Mourgue can be no.1

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Arthur Mourgue

SAM TOMKINS is tipping Arthur Mourgue to be a future star of French Rugby League and he has taken the young Dragon under his wing at Stade Gilbert Brutus.

Tomkins returned to Super League in blistering form last week with a man of the match performance against Wakefield Trinity.

However, the RFL disciplinary gave him a one match ban for a tripping offence during the game, leaving Sam kicking his heels with young Mourgue taking up his position for this weekend's Challenge Cup match v Trinity once again.

Tomkins, the 31-year-old former Wigan Warriors star has settled happily into life in the south of France, renovating his family home and enjoying the beach and sunshine Mediterranean lifestyle but he says the past four months have been far from idyllic.

“It’s been torture, obviously lockdown has affected everybody but even when we got back to training it was difficult knowing that I couldn’t take part in the first two matches.

"It was fantastic to get back but I'm out of action again which is massively frustrating.”

Tomkins isn't sitting at home sulking, he has been working closely with his replacement, even though the young Frenchman could one day take the shirt off his back.

He said: “I’ve been spending a lot of time with Arthur Mourgue at training because he’s been taking my position while I’m suspended and I’ve tried to make him as best prepared as possible because he hasn’t much experience at full-back.

“He’s very talented in terms of his speed and his footwork but he’s got a little learning to do yet for the full-back role. He’s made it clear he wants to be a half-back even though I think he’s better suited to number one.

“He’s in a very similar position to when I started my career, I came in at the halves and it’s the position I’d had growing up playing the game and sometimes you can get stuck in the same position without considering others.

“But with the speed that he has I think full-back would be best for him. He’s got the skills of a half-back, good hands and an OK kicking game, but that pace is really good from the back and perfectly suited to linking in with the centres and wings.

“For someone so young, he’s only 21, he’s got great confidence but he needs game-time and fixtures under his belt so I hope he’s enjoying my ban, because I’m not.

“But seriously, it’s good for him to get this experience, you can only do so much in training, but you learn so much more in a Super League game against seasoned professionals.

“It doesn’t seem two minutes ago when I was in the same position and our career goes very very quickly so it’s important to make the right decisions. I remember Trent Barrett telling me that I’d probably end up at full-back then coach Michael Maguire telling me the same.

“It’s not something I’d considered when I first started out but these guys know what they’re talking about so it’s important to listen.

“So if I can pass on my experience to the younger players at Catalans I’m happy. I know what it’s like to get thrown in at the deep end when you’re a young player and it is crucial that you have as much support as possible around you.”

Tomkins was a critic of the decision to bring in the no scrum and six-again rules mid-way through the current season, preferring to wait until next term, and after the early restart games he’s not changed his mind.

“We’ve only seen a couple of matches so far but it’s clear that it speeds the game up, the ball is in play for more minutes which will bring in more fatigue for the players. I’m not sure how much difference it will make at this stage with players fit and healthy after a long lay-off but it will take its toll later in the season when teams are depleted.

“When you can’t put your best team out that’s when the speed of the game can overwhelm you and nobody wants to see one-sided game. I still think we should have waited.”

After watching his team-mates crumble to champions St Helens in the first game of the restart (this piece was written before Saturday’s match against Salford) Tomkins said lessons had been learned quickly at training.

“It was disappointing the way we played against St Helens,” he said: “I don’t think anybody was happy with their game individually, and collectively there was a feeling that we were off the pace.

“We were in a bit of an arm wrestle in the first 15-20 minutes but when Saints got a flow on we couldn’t seem to wrestle it back off them for a number of reasons, the main one being our defence not being up to it.

“It’s the first game of the restart, we’ve analysed the game and learned a lot of lessons from it and we’ve been given a kick up the backside. We’ve done a full review and Steve (McNamara) has made it very clear what is required from us.

“Some people didn’t perform and it’s uncomfortable watching the video when it’s your team-mates but we’ve all been there. The important thing is to take out of that review the things we need to change and we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Tomkins said the mood was good in the Dragons squad, despite the opening set-back, and thanked his club chairman Bernard Guasch for digging deep to support the players.

“It’s a really tough time for everyone at the moment financially and players’ attitudes are very different across the boards. Some teams have been treated really fairly and I understand that some haven’t which is not good for anybody. But speaking on behalf of the Dragons, we’re happy to be back and we want to push on and do something this year.

“We’ve been very lucky with our owner, he’s looked after us financially and treated us fairly during a really difficult time. Not every club has been as lucky so I’m sure there is some frustration out there but overall the feeling is the same, we’re just glad to be back playing the game that we love.”

He added, “I can’t wait to get back and play at the Brutus, it’s a brilliant place to play when you’re playing well and winning and all the crazy French fans are going mad, the atmosphere is fantastic.

“They deserve to have something to shout about, there’s been no sport here for quite a while and because we’ve had to play in the UK for the whole of August it’s like our fans have had a four-game ban too.

“But they’ve got a lot to look forward to with at least six home games and they might be frustrated at the moment but they’ll see a lot of rugby this year and I’m looking forward to getting back in front of them.”

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

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"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."

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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!

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

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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..."

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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.

 

GAM