Less than two weeks away from a second Challenge Cup final, it’s hard to believe that Catalans, one of Super League’s form teams right now, seemed near-certainties for The Qualifiers when propping up the table in late April.
But that was the case as, having won just two of their first ten matches in Super League, many believed that head coach Steve McNamara was destined for the chop. However, a hard fought 34-22 victory in the Challenge Cup at League One York City Knights gave them that vital winning feeling and, the week after, they toppled Hull FC and began their rise up the table.
Dealt an unfortunate hand in the first part of the season, a vast number – fifteen, in fact – of McNamara’s squad missed the majority of pre-season due to their involvement in the Rugby League World Cup. That left him unable to implement his plans with the key members of a team, a team he took over midway through last season and one who only stayed up courtesy of the Million Pound Game. Throw in the the early absences of Samisoni Langi and Luke Walsh – both first choice halves – due to injury and the Dragons appeared listless, clueless and cannon fodder for their more organised and capable opponents.
However, if that victory over York could mark the moment their season turned, so could the retirement of Luke Walsh due to injury. On the same day as the former Saints half-back retired, the Frenchmen announced the arrival of Josh Drinkwater, a man who was on the receiving end of a Catalans victory when wearing the shirt of relegated Leigh Centurions in the Million Pound Game. Having returned to Australia, the 25-year-old was playing with Western Suburbs Magpies in the New South Wales Cup before the Dragons picked him up and, boasting 72 points in seven matches for the team, he has built on that form and become one of the best – and most important – players any Super League teams this season.
His arrival provided the Dragons with the calm, guiding presence in the middle of the field and, along with his reliable left boot, this enabled the Dragons’ strike players to thrive. Indeed, the Australian Drinkwater made his Catalans debut in the home victory over Hull FC and scored sixteen of the team’s twenty five points with six goals and a try. Thereafter, the former Centurion has scored nine tries in his fourteen appearances and kicked over fifty goals and has been a key component of the impressive team McNamara has assembled in his team’s rise into the top eight of Super League. The vital drop goal in that victory over Hull FC, however, was booted by one of the Dragons’ most important and impressive players but one who doesn’t get the recognition he perhaps deserves.
Tony Gigot has had something of a turbulent couple of years. In February 2017, it was announced that the Frenchman had been hit with a two year ban following an incident with an anti-doping official during a training camp in October 2016. That was later shortened to three months before it was announced last autumn that the ban was reinstated for it’s full term. Knowing that there wasn’t a postitive test for any banned substances, Bernard Guasch – the club president – and the team stood by the talented back and appealed once more. Early in February this year, the appeal was won and, thereafter, he has been one of the Dragons’ most consistent performers. Playing at full-back, half-back and in the centres at various points, the 27-year-old kicked the vital drop goal against Hull FC and has scored seven tries in other appearances this year. A regular try provider as well for his team mates, Gigot is one of McNamara’s key players and scored both a try and drop goal in the Dragons’ stunning victory over St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi final, a victory which indicated just how far this team have come throughout 2018.
But could it just be the start of something remarkable for the club?
A Wembley appearance beckons for the Perpignan club and, while it is unlikely that they will reach the top four and the Super League semi-finals – especially after their heavy defeat to their Wembley opponents Warrington last weekend – they clearly have designs on big things next year. The confirmed signing of Sam Tomkins indicates just that and this year’s mid-season signing of Kenny Edwards until the end of 2019 shows that the club are able to attract strong players – regardless of their off-field behaviour. Tomkins’ former Wigan team-mate Michael McIlorum arrived last winter and he has brought a mentality which every club would love among it’s charges – one of a winner.
McIlorum and Tomkins have won multiple Super League titles and Challenge Cups during their time with Wigan and coming from such a successful club where winning is the norm brings a certain mindset to a team and the Dragons have that in their ranks now, something which they didn’t have for a long time and something which, it could be argued, made them a rather easy opponent – especially away from France. McNamara, during his year at the club thus far, has highlighted shortcomings in his squad. Following their opening weekend hammering at Widnes, the former New Zealand Warriors assistant coach questioned his team’s discipline. He has previously questioned their commitment to the case but, upon accepting the job in June 2017, he professed his belief that the Dragons truly are a marquee club and one he believed he could help succeed. Big victories away to Leeds Rhinos – a team McNamara’s men did the double over this year – and Wakefield Trinity, two tough places to visit, showed that his team have started to turn that corner away from home. Throw in the sensational performance the Frenchmen put together to topple the previously all-conquering St Helens to reach the Challenge Cup final and it is plain that they are a team with momentum behind them, the sort of momentum which will continue to make them a dangerous team to face.
The question, therefore, is can Catalans become a team competing at the top of Super League and for silverware instead of the team who, in recent years, have been struggling at the bottom? It is clear that Guasch believes in McNamara and his plan and, with the confirmed recruitment and rumours ahead of 2019, they are clearly aiming very high indeed. They are a powerful team in the forwards and a threatening team in the backs and, now, they don’t seem to have any weak links. McNamara himself acknowledged that there was a lot of work to do for the Dragons following their Million Pound Game victory and an insufficient pre-season. It’s fair to say that Catalan are now bearing the fruits of sticking to the former Bradford man’s plan and, in my opinion, the Dragons are a team on the up.
This month’s Challenge Cup final against Warrington promises to be a gripping encounter. However, while the game is a tough one to call, it wouldn’t be the be all and end all for the Dragons were they to lose it. I believe that the Perpignan club will be in the upper echelons of Super League next year and, with a proper pre-season and further additions to an already strong squad, they could really threaten the status quo of the top clubs in the not-too-distant future.