As they prepare to start their season at the Stade Gilbert Brutus today, Catalans Dragons coach STEVE McNAMARA talks to League Express reporter STEVE BRADY about their prospects for the new season.
Consistency is key… those three words are the mantra for Catalans Dragons as they prepare for their fifteenth season in Super League.
The perennial problem of hot and cold performances has dogged the club since its formation and coach Steve McNamara is more aware than anyone of the unique challenges that the club faces if it is ever to fulfil its rich promise.
A strong start in 2019 saw the Dragons briefly reach third spot on the league ladder with victories over Wigan, Warrington and St Helens, but in typical Catalans fashion they immediately hit an alarming loss of form which saw them plummet from play-off positions by the end of the season.
“We’re well aware of the unique challenges faced by this club,” says McNamara.
“We’ve shown what we’re capable of when we won the Challenge Cup in 2018 but the real test for us is success in Super League. Consistency and stability are what we are all working hard to achieve.
“It’s something we have spoken about already in pre-season and we’re very conscious of that, of being better in a whole lot of areas and if we can do that we’ll give ourselves a chance. Our away performance is clearly one of those areas that we’d like to improve.
“It’s a combination of things, but it is what it is. When we choose to either coach or play at a club like Catalans Dragons we have to understand that it is different, we will face far more challenges and travel more than anybody else but we either get on with it and enjoy or it or if you don’t like it you find somewhere else to go and work at. It’s as simple as that and we have got to overcome those challenges and embrace them.”
McNamara believes the signature of NRL star James Maloney and the return of prodigal son Josh Drinkwater could be crucial in Catalans’ quest for long-term winning form.
“We were desperately disappointed last season with the manner of our losses and we now have players here who can address that,” he said.
“The players we have brought in like Josh, who knows the club really well, and James who is all about the team – as I’ve seen first-hand when I coached him at Sydney Roosters – will help with that stability.
“Jimmy’s a really laid-back character and nothing phases him. We know that things can go wrong during a game and at times we have just switched off but Jimmy’s the kind of character that just brushes any challenge off and gets on with the next job. He’s fantastic at making the right decisions at the right time whether it’s in the first five minutes of the game when he’s fresh or the closing stages when he’s fatigued. There are not many players who can do that.
“Off the field he’s so laid back and he has no ego whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if he’s talking to the youngest French player or the most experienced overseas veteran, they’re all the same to him. It might have taken a few people by surprise how sociable he is and his complete lack of any ego.
“But It’s more than one person who is responsible, we all need to play our part to avoid putting ourselves in those positions and with the addition of players like James we should be able to get across the winning line when we are in tight games.
“It has got to be a club effort if we are going to be able to compete. We know we can.”
The unexpected departure of Brayden Wiliame to the NRL’s Dragons followed by the controversial recruitment of former NRL and Australia rugby union centre Israel Folau has had an impact on McNamara’s preparations for the new season, but he says he will not be diverted from his quest to create harmony in his squad.
After a mammoth fourteen weeks of pre-season McNamara says he is happy with the balance of the squad and the return of Drinkwater – so influential in his short stint in 2018 – has gone down well with his team-mates.
“With Josh it’s so obvious that he’s pleased to be back at the club,” he said.
“It’s clear that he suits us and we suit him and I’ve seen this before, I remember when I first started playing at Hull and we had an Australian – Greg Mackey – who just seemed to fit the club and it brought the very best out of him.
“I can see the same thing with Josh. He had such a big impact for us coming in halfway through 2018, he knows the way we play and I’m looking forward to seeing his combinations in the halves next year, as I’m sure our supporters are too.”
McNamara has agreed an extension to his current contract at Stade Gilbert Brutus and has had solid support from club President Bernard Guasch, who has made it clear that the priorities for the Dragons are league success and, more importantly, the recruitment and development of young French players.
“Bernard is a tremendous owner,” said McNamara. “He wears his heart on his sleeve but he’s played the game, he knows exactly what it’s all about. People don’t see the full contribution he makes to this club and his relationship with the players and staff behind closed doors.
“We were up in the mountains before Christmas training at high altitude and the owner was there with us lighting a barbecue and getting his hands dirty for the players. He’s very passionate and if anybody deserves success for his efforts it’s him. Bernard’s put his heart and soul into this club and hopefully we can repay him with success on the pitch.
“He’s made it very clear that the development of young French players remains our number one priority at the club. We have totally overhauled our Academy which is now practically at full-time status with players coming in at 6am then going to school or college and coming back later to continue training.
“It’s a really disciplined environment for them and we are already seeing the rewards in the physical development of players.”
McNamara has brought in five new first-team players for 2020 but has left space in the squad for two more additions, although it looks likely those positions will be taken up internally following Folau’s replacement for Wiliame.
He said: “When you look at our squad numbers we’re a couple of players light but the reason for this is that we are confident that we will get a few players coming up from our Academy this season.
“We’ve signed Jordan Dezaria from Toulouse on a reserve-grade contract and also Gavin Marguerite, who is a young French player who has exceptional pace and he will add strength and depth to our squad.
“We’re having a long pre-season this year and our Academy boys are playing their part. The club have put a lot of effort in to help develop that group. It’s the future and we have to focus on that, creating space and opportunity for young players to come through.
“We’ve now got some consistency and continuity with the staff at the club. People know how we work and how we want things doing and that makes the transition for young players at the club much easier.
“Staff here work tirelessly hard and have to make sacrifices and commitments, moving their families to a different country.
“It’s a bit too early to talk about success but I’m very happy with the squad we’ve assembled. The main thing is the importance that we keep improving and this squad will allow us to do that next season.
“It’s clear who our starting halves will be which definitely helps to give stability in terms of who you want at six, seven and nine and we’ve sorted that out for this season. We’ve got some great backups there too and that helps with stability and the team ethos which is consistency and improvement.”
2020 Squad: 1 David Mead; 2 Lewis Tierney; 3 Samisoni Langi; 5 Fouad Yaha; 6 James Maloney; 7 Josh Drinkwater; 8 Rémi Casty; 9 Michael McIlorum; 10 Sam Moa; 11 Matt Whitley; 12 Joel Tomkins; 13 Benjamin Garcia; 14 Julian Bousquet; 15 Mickael Simon; 16 Tom Davies; 17 Benjamin Jullien;18 Alrix Da Costa; 19 Mickael Goudemand; 20 Lucas Albert; 21 Paul Seguier; 22 Arthur Romano; 23 Antoni Maria; 24 Jason Baitieri; 25 Arthur Mourgue; 28 Sam Kasiano; 29 Sam Tomkins; Israel Folau (tba).
INS: James Maloney (Penrith Panthers), Josh Drinkwater (Hull KR), Joel Tomkins (Hull KR), Tom Davies (Wigan), Israel Folau (free agent).
OUTS: Greg Bird (retired), Kenny Edwards (Huddersfield Giants), Matty Smith (Warrington Wolves), Tony Gigot (unknown), Brayden Wiliame (St George Illawarra)
PRE-SEASON GAMES: Toulouse Olympique, Stade Albert Domec, Carcassonne, 18th January. Catalans won 22-10
Head Coach: Steve McNamara
Performance Manager: Richard Hunwicks
Assistant Coach: Thomas Bosc
Assistant Coach: Eamon O’Carroll
General Manager: Alex Chan
Head Physio: Rob Parkinson
Head of Strength and Conditioning: Jonathan Jones
Club Doctor: Philippe Roques
Player Welfare Manager: Sandra Chevalier
Home shirt: White with faded red and gold chevron, white shorts.
Away shirt: Red with gold chevron, red shorts.