JOSH DRINKWATER will leave Catalans Dragons at the end of the season after a six-month “rollercoaster ride” in France.

The Dragons called for international rescue in April after their worst ever start to a Super League season - coach Steve McNamara asking Drinkwater to fill the breach after scrum-half Luke Walsh was forced to retire through injury.

Since his arrival on a half-season deal the Catalans have clawed their way from bottom of the table to Super League top eight safety. And the crowning glory of the season came last month with the historic Challenge Cup win at Wembley.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Drinkwater. “It’s been successful and winning the Challenge Cup has been the highlight of my career so far.

“But I don’t think I’ll be staying here, to be honest. For one reason or another things haven’t worked out so I’ll be moving on.”

The Dragons have agreed terms with St Helens and former Wigan scrum-half Matty Smith for next season and Sam Tomkins has already agreed to move to Perpignan, creating congestion among the backs at Stade Gilbert Brutus.

It is understood the club will also be adding a winger to replace Fouad Yaha (who is leaving to join rugby union) and a prop-forward following the decision by Louis Anderson to leave at the end of the season.

The decision not to include Drinkwater next year will surprise some who had seen him as the catalyst for the club’s revival in 2018.

Asked whether or not he will be staying in Super League he said: “I’m not too fussed, my manager will sort all that out. I’d be happy either way, moving over to England in Super League or back to Australia to have a shot at the NRL.

“I just want to finish these last three weeks on a good note and whatever happens after that happens I guess.”

Drinkwater said he’d been impressed with the standard of the game this season, especially at the top level.

“I’ve enjoyed these last few months, I’ve been involved in some great games. The top four in Super League could definitely compete in the NRL. The only difference is the bottom half of Super League would find it difficult.

“I’d be very happy to continue in Super League, I’ve lived in England before so that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Rugby League is a rollercoaster. Last year I thought I’d be playing for Leigh for three years and the Million Pound Game put paid to that.

“Next thing I’m at Catalans and winning the Challenge Cup final so I’m not too fussed about the immediate future. It will sort itself out so I’m not getting stressed about it.

“Rugby League is a business and I understand that so whatever happens, happens.”

the Catalans Dragons' coach

STEVE BRADY takes a look at a surreal season for

McNamara's work of art...

South-west France is an area famously frequented by surrealists such as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Steve McNamara.

Those first two names are world famous painters whose unique vision and often bizarre interpretations of reality have produced some of history’s greatest works of art. The third is a Rugby League coach from Hull.

McNamara’s “oeuvre” comes in the shape of an oval ball and thirteen players, but his latest work has stunned the world with its powerful and passionate portrayal of “sang et or” (blood and gold) on a lush green background with a final flourish of silver.

“It’s all a bit surreal,” said the Catalans Dragons coach after seeing his team win the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. “I can’t completely sum it up…”

That’s the thing with surrealism, it’s difficult to explain. Who could possibly make sense of a Catalan conundrum which began with the worst ever start to a season and ended with the club’s first ever trophy?

All fine artists (and coaches) start with great expectations but the path to success can occasionally veer off into dark periods of desolation and despair. In some cases this adds depth and perception to the brilliance of their work but it very often leads to the sack.

It was a blank canvas for McNamara when he assembled his new team in January - made up from desperate survivors of last year’s Million Pound game but generously sprinkled with expensive new additions including Papua New Guinea skipper David Mead and Wigan’s talismanic hooker Michael McIlorum.

This season’s Catalans were a colourful mix of Tongans, Fijians, Papuans, Aussies, Kiwis, English and French - a broad palette of players, many of whom had just returned from the World Cup in Australia.

With very short preparation time, McNamara went to work. His project took its first painful twist when he lost half of the team to a frozen plastic pitch at Widnes in round one. Scrum-half Luke Walsh never fully recovered from an ankle injury which ultimately led to his retirement from the game.

The losses piled up on the pitch and we in the media were preparing for La Madame Guillotine to join us in post-match press conferences in Perpignan. The usual banalities appeared on English (anti)social media: “McBanana” this and “Crapalans” that but over here it was different.

The club had bought into McNamara’s long-term vision and, breaking with their fiery Latin shoot-first tactics of yesteryear, they stuck with their man.

More importantly, the supporters stuck with their man. Fans in the passion-pot Guasch Stand at the Gilbert Brutus seemed to empathise with the dignity and strength of their coach. Of course, their screams of ‘Putain’ and ‘Merdre’ were still de rigeur for referees or any Anglais who didn’t happen to be playing for their team - but Mac drew no flak.

Robert Mourgue, 87-years-old and the Dragons’ most loyal supporter, told me at the time: “Il est un homme bon…” he is a good man.

The French resistance to a change of coach held firm yet there was more pain to follow with defeat after defeat. Something had to give…

The turning point came at the end of April when the club brought Josh Drinkwater back to Super League from a building site in Australia. Before jet-lag and back-ache had worn off McNamara put him straight into the team to face Hull at home. The Dragons won it 25-24 with a last-gasp Tony Gigot drop-goal and they embarked upon a thrilling run to secure top eight safety against all odds.

The crowning glory of their revival came in the double-header Challenge Cup semi-final when they  knocked the stuffing out of St Helens and bumped them out of the competition at Bolton.

McNamara said then that the adversity his team had suffered earlier in the season was paying dividends: “Try seeing how close your group is when you’ve two wins from eleven. That’s when you find out if it’s splintered or not.”

For their next trick, their piéce de résistance, they splintered the glass ceiling of an overseas side winning a major Rugby Football League competition. Amid scenes of dizzy jubilation and a flurry of Catalonian flags, the Dragons soared to their zenith by beating Warrington Wolves 20-14.

McNamara can be excused for feeling a sense of déja vu during the game, his previous trip to Wembley was as England coach for the 2013 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. The Kiwis were behind until the very closing moments of the match.

“For that last five minutes against Warrington,” he said, “I was sat thinking that clock’s going to get down to 21 seconds and Shaun Johnson is going to jump out the other side and score a try!”

Surreal indeed… back in the real world the Wolves were at the door, piling on pressure in the second half, could it be double Wembley heartbreak for McNamara?

There is a line in the Catalan anthem Els Segadors which is sung before all matches in Perpignan which reads “defensors de la terra” – defenders of the land. The Dragons stuck to the lyrics and tackled their way to the trophy with a defensive display worth singing about.

The final hooter was drowned out by a chorus of “Catalans, allez allez allez” and history was made.

The thousands of supporters who couldn’t travel to Wembley were rewarded with a return of the team to Perpignan in the early hours of Sunday morning where the party started at the airport and hasn’t yet fully ended.

Some hangovers are beginning to clear but there is still a dizziness - a surreal feeling over here - at the events of the past six months.

Trying to make sense of it all is Dragons’ chairman Bernard Guasch. The “meat magnate” of the region is a hard-nosed businessman with a soft spot for a game that he says: “Has given so much to me and my family.”

He has no time to stand and stare at the surreal picture of recent events - he is ensuring that the legacy of this historic cup win will boost Rugby League in France.

Already, the leader of the Catalan Government has visited the Stade Gilbert Brutus to celebrate the cup triumph and Guasch will parade the trophy before 100,000 football fans when Barcelona host Girona in the Catalan derby at Camp Nou on September 23rd.

“Winning the cup is just the beginning for us,” said the President. “It is a new start for this club. I hope that among the millions who have seen the cup final on TV there will be children who now dream of becoming a Catalans Dragons player.

“We have shown that anything is possible, and that French Rugby League can stand strong. We had nine French players in our cup final side and it is my ambition to bring more through the ranks. The future is French.”

In charge of this French renaissance next season will be an Englishman whose transition from favourite for le chop to potential coach of the year has been a surreal work of art.

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.”

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
Paul Seguier

The future is French for new-look Catalans Dragons

Home is where the heart is for Tony Gigot

STEVE BRADY speaks to the former Catalans Dragons ace whose career is on the bridge at Avignon - his hometown club

TONY GIGOT rounded off twelve months of hell with a try-scoring return to his hometown club Avignon last week and he couldn’t be happier at making the “step down” from Super League to French Elite One level.

The 30-year-old former Catalans Dragons full-back will be forever grateful to Chris Chester and Michael Carter at Wakefield Trinity for releasing him from the worst year of his career and allowing him to return home.

Gigot was freed from the remaining year of his contract at Belle Vue last month after the French international cited homesickness following a torrid 12-months in which he became entangled in the Toronto Wolfpack collapse then signed for Trinity but suffered from injuries and indifferent performances.

“I’m so grateful to Wakefield, I asked the coach Chris and chairman Michael if I could go home and they listened,” Gigot told Catalan Media.

“It had been the worst year of my career, starting with Toronto, then I got Covid and I picked up some injuries and I think it all affected my performances for Wakefield because I was unhappy. They understood how I was feeling and I’m very grateful for that.”

Gigot has returned to his former club Avignon where he made his Elite One comeback in the French championship on Sunday against Albi and he’s happy to be back with family and friends in the south of France.

Left without a club at the end of 2019 when he failed to agree a new deal at Catalans, Gigot signed a four-week trial contract with Toronto in a bid to secure a permanent deal. Upon the collapse of the Wolfpack, he was again without a club until Trinity stepped in with an 18-month deal.

But the player suffered a series of injuries and failed to make a positive impact for Wakefield before admitting to club chiefs that he was unhappy and homesick.

“It wasn’t the way I wanted things to happen but I’m not the only one who’s been through it,” said Gigot, adding: “It has been a terrible year for everyone across the world, Covid has been a disaster. But after everything that happened last year, all I wanted to do was get home and play some footy, it’s the only thing that makes me happy.

“It was the best thing for me, and probably the best thing for Wakefield too. They gave me the opportunity when they signed me last year and I had hoped to repay them on the pitch.

He said, “It was a tough season for me last year, it was a struggle with Toronto then I got injured, I had Covid and I wasn’t at my best for Wakefield. I’m just happy now that I’m back with my family.”

“But for me to play my best footy I have to be happy in life and after everything that happened last year I couldn’t do that.

“I feel good now at last. Life is beautiful and you have to be happy. I was missing my family, and seeing my nephews grow up and although it is a step down from Super League, it was the right thing for me to do.”

Gigot has been reunited with an influential figure in his career, former Dragons Chief Executive Christophe Jouffret who has taken on an advisory role at Avignon Bisons.

“It’s good to be back alongside Christophe,” said Gigot. “He’s a guy who’s always been around me, we come from the same place and of course we were together at Catalans.

“When I first started playing, he was the Chairman at Avignon and it’s nice that I can see him again back at our club.

“The people here do a great job with not a lot of resources. There are some great young players from around here and hopefully I can help out and pass on some of my experience.”

Gigot admits he hadn’t planned to end his top flight career so soon and he hasn’t dismissed a return to Super League in the future, but it isn’t something he can contemplate at this stage.

He said, “I don’t know if I will play Super League again or not, it isn’t something that is in my head at the moment. I just want to enjoy life again and playing footy for my hometown club has put a smile back on my face.

“I had always hoped to come back here and finish my career but I didn’t think it would be as early as this.

“I’d hate to think that this is the way I finished my Super League career, but that is life, it’s full of lows and highs. I don’t know if I am finished at that level, we will have to take each day as it comes.”

The Bisons ready to bite in Elite 1

RUGBY LEAGUE is on the bridge at Avignon as one of French Rugby League’s most famous and historic clubs prepares for a renaissance under one of the game’s most experienced administrators.

Former Catalans Dragons Chief Executive Christophe Jouffret has returned to his hometown team to help return SO Avignon to its former glory as cup kings and champions of France.

The Bisons hit the headlines last week by announcing the signature of local hero Tony Gigot. The 30-year-old former Catalans, Toronto and Wakefield full-back snapped up the chance to play at the Parc Des Sports in the Elite One competition which is continuing to play during virus-control restrictions under government approval as an “elite sport”.

Gigot said: “I am happy to return to the club where I started; like many, the 2020 season has been complicated. Today, I need to find pleasure in playing and to get back on my feet, hoping to reach the highest level as soon as possible.”

Bisons coach, former French international Renaud Guigue added: “Tony is a player who has enormous talent. We will do everything to ensure he has fun with us again and that he finds the desire to perform.”

The reunion between Jouffret and Gigot, just three years since they saw Challenge Cup glory together (and Gigot won the Lance Todd Trophy) at Wembley, has got Avignon supporters dreaming of a glittering future.

But Jouffret said any Super League ambitions are way off the mark, as he told Catalan Media: “This club is very ambitious and I’ve tried to give my help since I arrived and pass on my experience. There is a very hard-working group of people here and the plan is to make Avignon into one of the top teams in French Rugby League.

“At this time, any thoughts of Super League are not on the table. We need to grow step by step and there is a lot of work to do yet to gain in strength and improve our standing in the French game. In the future, who knows, but it is not something on our minds at this stage.”

Avignon have a rich history, including an incredible hey-day in the 1950s, winning the Lord Derby Cup twice in front of regular crowds of over 10,000. They have won the French cup five times and picked up the Elite One championship in 2018.

Jouffret grew up supporting the team on the terraces with his father and then played for the club. He is a qualified accountant and had a successful career at the French Federation before joining Catalans Dragons. His commercial and administrative experience is a huge asset for the Bisons.

“I have always followed Avignon,” he said.

“The club is very close to my heart. It has been in good hands under the chairmanship of my friends Philippe Duclaux, Eric Garzino, Frédéric and Florien Bissiére and a loyal band of people who are working behind the scenes. If I can help in any way then it is an honour.”

Jouffret added: “Avignon is a big city, it has a strong Rugby League pedigree and we were lucky enough to recruit many top players from the area while I was at the at the Dragons, players like Vincent Duport, Tony Gigot, Arthur Romano, Arthur Mourgue, Ben Garcia and Fouad Yaha and many more from Avignon.

“Our mission is to bring those players back and develop our playing squad. We have a long way to go before we can class ourselves as one of the top French clubs, but we are heading in the right direction.

“Having Tony here again is a massive boost for the club. We all know what a talented player he is and we cannot wait to see him in the Avignon colours again.

“At the same time it is crucial that we develop young players because there is so much young playing talent around here it is essential that we offer the right pathway and pass on our knowledge and guidance. That is the immediate future for Avignon.”

Avignon’s ambitions received another boost last week with the recruitment of former Warrington and Widnes prop Pat Moran. The Wigan-born 22-year-old Ireland international made an impressive debut for the Bisons in a narrow win at Palau Broncos.

PAT MORAN following his debut for Avignon at Palau

Casty's French Connection Two

“Toulouse is the fourth biggest city in France, it has a large economy in and around the city so there is massive potential for the club. Now we have to do it on the field.”
RÉMI CASTY

RÉMI CASTY is hoping to provide a French Connection Two for Super League after signing for ambitious championship side Toulouse Olympique (writes STEVE BRADY).

The 35-year-old former Catalans Dragons and French international skipper has signed a one-year deal at Stade Ernest Wallon and he couldn’t be happier... “I’m very happy and excited to be in this team,” he told Catalan Media.

“Toulouse Olympique is such a big name in the history of the game here and it means so much to every French player. To now have the opportunity to be part of the first French team ever to challenge for promotion to Super League from the championship is a real honour.”

Catalans’ shock decision to release their talisman captain left Toulouse with little option but to approach Casty, according to coach Sylvain Houles who said: “As soon as Catalans released him we knew we had to have him with us, he is the player that can take us to the next level.

“He completes a very rich squad. We’ve been on it for a little while and he is the missing piece in our group. He has incredible experience and is a natural leader, the best French player for generations.

“I can see that this new challenge has given Rémi that competitive spirit which all successful sportsman have. It’s clear that he wants to end his incredible career by doing something special and unique.”

Casty himself admits the new role has energised him, saying: “I can’t wait to be part of the team and join the group this week.

“I will bring my experience but also I still feel fresh, I’ve got plenty left in the tank to give something to the team. I always knew I had another year in me and to be part of Toulouse’s push for promotion is incredible for me.

“I know Sylvain, we played together at international level, and in those days the team spirit was very good in the squad so we had many good times together.

“Since then, we have the same friends and we both know Trent Robinson and when he came to France recently me and Sylvain met him and we talked together. I’m very pleased to play for him because I know he is a great coach, his philosophy is very French and expansive.

“The way they play under Sylvain is very refreshing and it reminds me of the way we played many years ago when Trent was coach at Catalans. It’s a philosophy where we play every play to score tries and I’m very excited to be able to play that kind of rugby again under Sylvain.

“It’s good to throw the ball around and create free-flowing moves, it’s very refreshing and maybe Super League would benefit from this but also to survive at the top you have to have experience and stability and I hope I will bring some of that to the team.

“It will be hard to go up, the championship is a tough competition and even more so this year, but it would be a massive achievement for Toulouse and the game in France if we make it.

“We’re not there yet, we just have to be the best team in the championship this year and stay strong enough to be part of the play-offs, that is the only way into Super League for Toulouse.

“To be part of a second French team in Super League, wow, for the game in this country would be huge and I think we would bring energy and enthusiasm to the game at the top level.”

Casty will link up with his new team-mates this week and he can’t wait to run out at Stade Wallon, saying: “It’s one of the best stadiums in France to play rugby, the facilities and the way it is run are absolutely top class.

“I can feel the club is ready to go up, not only with the quality of the squad and coaching staff, but also the administration of the club.

“They are so professional, their philosophy, the way they are working and thinking is already like a Super League club.

“Toulouse is the fourth biggest city in France, it has a large economy in and around the city so there is massive potential for the club. Now we have to do it on the field.”

Casty admitted he may be tempted to return to the French ranks for the coming World Cup competition, after retiring from international duty two years ago to focus on his Super League career.

He said, “Why not? I still feel strong enough and if my performances are good enough of course I would like to have one last challenge in the French jersey. The World Cup is the ultimate for all players and it would be the best way to finish your international career.”

Toulouse Olympique’s 34-year-old forward Frank Winterstein has been released from his contract for family reasons and allowed to return to Australia.

Winterstein played just four games in last year’s curtailed campaign since joining Toulouse but has cited homesickness complicated by the Covid situation as his reasons for wanting to go home.

Don't look back in anger

"It’s been a personal challenge for me to try to stay a bit more composed in games..."
Michael McIlorum tells Catalan Media's Steve Brady about his ambitions in France - and the World Cup and how he wants to "move on" from the disappointments of last season

THE WAITING game for the start to Super League 2021 will last even longer for Michael McIlorum who will miss the opening five rounds while still on suspension.

The Catalans Dragons hooker picked up a six-match ban for a high tackle and “other contrary behaviour” towards his Leeds Rhinos’ opposite number Brad Dwyer in last season’s play-offs, but he won’t spend the time dwelling on the incident as he is too busy focussing on extending his career in France and the possibility of taking up the green jersey of Ireland in the World Cup.

“There’s no point looking back,” McIlorum told Catalan Media.

“It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go but hopefully this year will be a bit better. The biggest disappointment for me was not being able to help the team the following week against St Helens.”

McIlorum said he hadn’t engaged with any of the media aftermath of the incident, adding: “I’m not into social media so I didn’t pick up on any of that. It was what it was and it has been dealt with, it’s time to move on.

“It’s already a long pre-season but it’ll be even longer for me with the five games remaining on the suspension. Hopefully we will have some warm-up fixtures and maybe they could count on the ban but either way I’m going to be missing the first four or five games.

“You can’t dwell on it, you’ve just got to work as hard as you can to be ready for that first game back.”

McIlorum’s reputation as a hard-nosed hooker was already established in the Wigan Warriors junior ranks before he made his first-team debut in 2007 but he says he has worked hard on trying to control the ‘physical’ side of his game.

“I was pretty raw back in the day when I first started but Waney and Madge (Wigan coaches Shaun Wane and Michael Maguire) really helped me to focus more on skill-based stuff and control certain parts of my game.

“It’s been a personal challenge for me to try to stay a bit more composed in games and be a little smarter when I’m coming out of the line so I like to think I’ve developed my game quite a lot.”

McIlorum will have more time than most to develop his skill on the training ground this year as he serves out his ban, but when he is finally allowed to play, he says he will hit the ground running.

“I still feel as fit as I was ten years ago,” he said: “Last season was so stop-start, with long periods of rest, that it was almost like having a year off.

“So while Coronavirus has been an absolute disaster for everyone, in terms of playing careers it’s been beneficial. We’ve never had so much recovery time between games and prolonged periods of training without the weekly collision. All of the players will be on top of their fitness when the new season starts which can only be good for the game.”

For all the physical benefits of a lighter workload, last season took its toll mentally on players, according to McIlorum, who added: “All we want is some consistency and stability now. The time off is one thing but under lockdown you’re not allowed into training sessions or to meet up with the boys and at times it was hard to motivate yourself when you don’t know when you’re going to be playing.

“The biggest problem was the not-knowing. If you’re given a target to aim for, no matter how long it takes to get there, it’s fine, but every time we got going last year we had to stop again, and then we wouldn’t know when we were able to start.

“It’s difficult, mentally, to deal with that when your whole career has been based around rigid targets, dates and fixture lists.

“And we’re playing the waiting game again now. As soon as our coach Steve McNamara knows anything he communicates it to us, but we’re still waiting for dates, and just keeping as fit as we can. All we can do as players is keep in contact with each other and try to motivate your team-mates.”

McIlorum has just turned 33 and he believes he still has lots more to offer the game on the pitch but he admits to feeling the passing of time when he sees former team-mates moving into coaching at top Super League clubs.

“After last year, there’s a lot of anticipation for the new season,” he said: “It’ll be the usual suspects I suppose, with Wigan and Saints pushing for the title, but Leeds have now got Sean Long in there and his input can only be a good thing for them.

“It’s good to see players like Long and Wigan’s Sean O’Loughlin involved in coaching. Lockers will bring a different dimension for Wigan and the players will want to do their best for him, they know what he demands.

“At Catalans we’re aspiring to be as consistently good as those top sides. It’s a work in progress and Steve and Richard (Hunwicks, the Dragons’ Performance Manager) are trying to instil a new culture here.

“They’re doing it from the ground up, starting with the young French kids, so they will know exactly what is expected of them when they do make it into the first team.

“It can’t happen overnight but there has been massive progress already, and I’ve seen it in the three years I’ve been here, the structure is a lot better than when I first came.

“We’re all a part of it, the senior professionals get a bit of a buzz about seeing young French players coming through. We get lots of time with them at training sessions and it’s great that we can pass on our experience to the next generation.

“It doesn’t seem two minutes since I was just starting out and I looked up to people like Lockers, he’d give us his time and you learned so much. That’s our job now at this stage of our careers.”

McIlorum is happy with the Dragons’ recruitment so far for 2021 with former Wigan team-mate Gil Dudson and Castleford’s Mike McMeeken already on board in Perpignan.

“It’s what we missed a bit last year in the middles,” he said, adding: “At times we tired during games and I think these two signings will freshen things up.

“They’re both big lads too and that size will benefit our pack and also support the younger French forwards which we are trying to push through at the moment because they are the future for the Dragons.”

The immediate future for McIlorum is serving his ban, then working on an extension to his career at Stade Gilbert Brutus. Plus the possibility of an appearance in October’s World Cup.

“I’m still keen to play for Ireland if I get the call,” he said. “I’d be very happy to pull the green shirt on. It’s a real buzz for players to take part in a World Cup, it takes you out of one playing and coaching environment and throws you into a totally different set-up.

“You’re working with new coaches and team-mates so you pick up so much from international duty, even for players like myself who’ve been around a bit, there’s always something else you can learn.

“And I’m still learning at Catalans. I love it over here, I’ve got one year left on my current deal and if my performances are good enough this season I’d be delighted if I could stay longer with another contract.

“My life’s over here, I’ve got my friends here and I’d like to stay as long as possible.

“I love everything about the place, it’s a great part of the world and the people are fantastic, wherever you got it’s a friendly bonjour and they want to talk to you.

“They’ve made me feel very welcome and it’s down to me and how I perform that will determine whether I can stay on over here.”

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)

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.”

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

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.

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."

Tomkins calls time on 2020's

"total mess"

Interview: Steve Brady

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.

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

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

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

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

Back in business at the

By Steve Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brutus!

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

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

Sam wants More, More, Moa!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Steve Brady

Israel touches down

Folau's dream debut for the Dragons

CATALANS DRAGONS 36      CASTLEFORD TIGERS 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

DRAGONS

29 Sam Tomkins

  2 Lewis Tierney

  3 Samisoni Langi

  4 Israel Folau (D)

  5 Fouad Yaha

  6 James Maloney

  7 Josh Drinkwater

  8 Rémi Casty (C)

  9 Michael McIlorum

14 Julian Bousquet

11 Matt Whitley

12 Joel Tomkins

13 Benjamin Garcia

Subs (all used)

17 Benjamin Jullien

23 Antoni Maria

24 Jason Baitieri

28 Sam Kasiano

Also in 21-man squad

20 Lucas Albert

21 Paul Séguier

22 Arthur Romano

27 Gavin Marguerite

 

TIGERS

  1 Jordan Rankin

  2 Derrell Olpherts

18 Cheyse Blair

  4 Michael Shenton (C)

21 James Clare

  6 Jake Trueman

  7 Danny Richardson

  8 Liam Watts

  9 Paul McShane

16 George Griffin

11 Oliver Holmes

10 Grant Millington

14 Nathan Massey

Subs (all used)

12 Mike McMeeken

19 Daniel Smith

22 Jacques O’Neill

24 Tyla Hepi

Also in 21-man squad

20 Junior Moors

30 Robbie Storey

31 Brad Martin

32 Sam Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mac's hopes

Toulouse Olympique 10

Catalans Dragons 22

Denise Brady at Stade Albert Domec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Second half Super-men seal French pre-season derby

Try-scorer Michael McIlorum

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

Time out for Tierney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragons still seek TV deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vive la difference says coach Houles 

Joe Bretherton
Constantine Mika and William Barthau

By Steve Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Metal Mickey!

Goudemand gets a bionic finger...

Catalans star fixes his dodgy digit

By Steve Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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