League Express editor MARTYN SADLER talks to Catalans Dragons coach STEVE McNAMARA about the Dragons’ prospects for the 2019 season.
CATALANS DRAGONS created history last season when they became the first team outside England to win the Challenge Cup.
And although their participation in the 2019 Challenge Cup has been thrown into doubt in recent weeks, with the Dragons refusing to pay the RFL a bond to ensure that they can defend their title, McNamara is confident that they will be a force to be reckoned with in Super League this season, even if they don’t feature in the Cup.
McNamara’s confidence stems from his signings and from the more organised pre-season that the club is enjoying in 2019, compared to a year ago, when most of his players were unavoidably late arrivals because of their World Cup commitments.
“The World Cup year is tough for every club, and we do suffer more than most,” says McNamara.
“A lot of the people we recruited last year were at the World Cup. We started the 2017 pre-season with seven players.
“But all our players came back fighting after our Christmas break, after giving the squad some time off over the holiday period.”
McNamara admits that the unique circumstances of his club justifies a generous policy towards granting his players time off over the festive period.
“We travelled 21 times to England last year and so the players spend so much time away from their families that it is important to give them some time back with their loved ones.”
Despite his confidence, however, McNamara realises that improvements have to be made if the Dragons are to make the play-offs.
“We finished seventh in the Super League last season and we’ve got to improve dramatically even to think about contending,” says McNamara.
“The Cup showed what we can do and how we can perform. We didn’t do it enough during the season, however. We will have to improve a lot. Every other team wants to compete at the top.
“Last season St Helens were clearly the front runners. No one could get near them, but this year you look at the improvements throughout the competition and you know you are going to have to play well to get a win. I think the competition will be far more evenly contested this season.”
And McNamara concedes that he is happy with the re-structured Super League competition in 2019, including the return of the top-five play-off system.
“I am happy, although I would have preferred six teams to qualify for the play-offs, but I am certainly okay with five,” says McNamara, who is hoping that he will have more luck with injuries in 2019 than he enjoyed last year.
“Losing Luke Walsh so early on was very difficult last season,” he points out.
“The players who came in after that couldn’t get us across the line and we could only win two from our first eleven games. But it was still a successful season.
“Round 1 was tough at Widnes and we suffered some injuries and we seemed to struggle after that.
“Tony Gigot got banned and then got off, was banned again and got off again. He wasn’t allowed to train with us at any stage and had only ten days training before he returned to action.”
While the victory at Wembley was the obvious highlight of the 2018 season, it wasn’t the Dragons’ best performance of the season, in McNamara’s opinion.
“St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi-final was our performance of the season,” he says, without hesitation.
“Prior to that game I sensed that we were going to play really well. I knew that Saints would have to play well to beat us; we worked really hard and we really put some points on the board in the last twelve minutes of the first half that made it very difficult for them to come back at us.
“Before the Cup Final on the day of the game we went for the team walk and you could see how confident and energetic the players were. We scored early in both halves, which was great, because it’s hard to chase a team down at Wembley. After Wembley it was impossible to make the Grand Final and we rested some players.”
The highlight of the 2019 season, at least if the Dragons don’t make the Super League Grand Final, is likely to be their visit to the Nou Camp when they play Wigan on 18 May.
“It’s a tremendous honour to go there and I’m sure we’ll draw a good crowd. Barcelona are totally behind it and we don’t want to let our brand fail.
“We have huge responsibilities to get as many people there as possible, but the Barcelona club will back it and support it.
“To appreciate that, you need some understanding of how strong the feeling is to be Catalan. The way they received it in Barcelona, it was as though we were one of theirs already. It is incredible. I’m excited about playing there, but for the born and bred Catalans it’s absolutely magical.
“Thomas Bosc, for example, is as Catalan as you can get. He is training hard to try and come out of retirement to make the team. It will be great and beneficial for us and for Rugby League in general.”
The Dragons will have a more English look about them in 2019 than at any other time in their history, with the acquisition of Sam Tomkins from Wigan, Matty Smith from St Helens and Matt Whitley from Widnes, adding to Jodie Broughton, Lewis Tierney and Michael McIlorum, who were all playing for the Dragons in 2018.
“Sam has settled in well and you see immediately with him that he’s a leader,” says McNamara.
“In sport you often get experienced players but they are not genuine leaders. But he is bringing those qualities to our group, as did Micky McIlorum. Micky is a standout player and to have him and now Sam in the team will be tremendous for us. We also have Rémi Casty and Benjamin Garcia as genuine leaders in the squad.
“An opportunity arose to sign Matty Smith, who has effectively had a year out, playing just a handful of games in 2018, which was frustrating for him. But sometimes that brings the best out of a player. He is very fit and is eager to get out there and play.
“When I was the England coach I had Matty in the international squad. We also had Gareth Widdop and George Williams in the squad, and in the third Test I picked Matty at halfback. He knows what to do, can kick the ball and organises people around him.
“He is the type of player this group needed to bring stability and calmness to the squad. In the really big games, Matty will get the job done for us.
“Matt Whitley is an exciting young player. I was away from England for a few years and I didn’t see him as a younger player, but I’ve been impressed when I’ve seen him. To attract one of the young up-and-coming English players is a big asset for our club. He has shown bravery to move to another country and to throw himself into this squad. He trains extremely hard, is in very good condition, and is a great person.
“Louis Anderson was leaving our group and we needed to replace him and Matt was the ideal candidate.
“Last year we needed to add depth, which we did, but this year we needed to add quality, which we’ve done also.
“We now have a fantastic core of French players. If you didn’t know their nationality you would have said that the French players performed magnificently. We are a French team. Of the 17 at Wembley, nine were French.”
In 2019 Tony Gigot will again wear the number 1 shirt, David Mead takes the number 3, Micky McIlorum the number 9 and Kenny Edwards the number 11.
Sam Tomkins will wear number 29, his first number when he started his career at Wigan. The others new signings Matty Smith and Matt Whitley have been given respectively number 7 and 17.
“We still have the possibility to add to our squad and are actively searching the market for further potential additions should the opportunity arise,” adds McNamara.
2019 Squad: 1 Tony Gigot, 2 Jodie Broughton, 3 David Mead, 4 Brayden Wiliame, 5 Lewis Tierney, 6 Samisoni Langi, 7 Matty Smith, 8 Rémi Casty, 9 Micky McIlorum, 10 Sam Moa, 11 Kenny Edwards, 12 Benjamin Garcia, 13 Greg Bird, 14 Julian Bousquet, 15 Mickael Simon, 16 Benjamin Jullien, 17 Matt Whitley, 18 Alrix Da Costa, 19 Mickael Goudemand, 20 Lambert Belmas, 21 Paul Séguier, 22 Lucas Albert, 23 Antoni Maria, 24 Jason Baitieri, 25 Arthur Romano, 26 Arthur Mourgue, 29 Sam Tomkins.
INS: Matty Smith (St Helens), Matt Whitley (Widnes Vikings), Sam Tomkins (Wigan Warriors)
OUTS: Iain Thornley (Leigh Centurions), Fouad Yaha (Agen RUFC), Luke Walsh (retired – April), Paul Aiton (retired), Louis Anderson (retired), Vincent Duport (retired), Georgy Gambaro (Barrow Raiders), Josh Drinkwater (Hull Kingston Rovers).
Friday 18 January: FFR President’s XIII (French Elite Selection) (won 38-14)
Friday 25 January: Toulouse Olympique (won 22-18)
Director of Rugby: Alex Chan
Head Coach: Steve McNamara
Attack Coach: Thomas Bosc
Defence Coach: Eamon O’Carroll
Development Coach: Benoit Albert
Head of Performance: Richard Hunwicks
Strength and Conditioning Assistant: Maxence Riviere
Strength and Conditioning Assistant: Jonathan Jones
Head of Medical: Rob Parkinson
Video analyst: Cyril Torrès
Kitman: Christian Cozza
Home Kit: White jersey with a blood and gold chevron
Away Kit: Red jersey with gold shoulders