Catalans Dragons in-depth preview: Steve McNamara on a new group aiming for their holy grail

Steve McNamara tells STEVE BRADY that a new-look Catalans Dragons can be genuine Grand Final challengers in 2024.

WILL IT be third-time lucky in 2024 for Catalans Dragons, who have narrowly missed out on Grand Final glory twice in the past three seasons?

Close defeats at Old Trafford to St Helens (2021) and Wigan last season have put Super League’s French side in solid contention for the ultimate prize once again this year, having established themselves as regular top-four finishers and finally banishing a roller-coaster reputation for inconsistency and ill-discipline that dogged their early years in the competition.

Since former England coach Steve McNamara took over in 2017 the Dragons have trod a steadier path, gradually acquiring the consistency and discipline necessary to break into the top four.

So, can they make history and become the first French side to lift the trophy? It’s officially the Chinese Year of the Dragon in 2024, but McNamara prefers to believe in the theory of evolution rather than any oriental mystical symbolism.

“We have come such a long way in such a short time and our evolution has been a real success story for the entire sport,” he says.

“We are the youngest club in the comp, starting our 19th season this year and we are constantly evolving and playing catch-up with some of the more established successful sides. We have made massive progress and established a certain DNA here in Perpignan as a very difficult team to beat. But there is much more to come and our evolution comes with many small steps, attention to detail and hard work.”

The departure of seven first-teamers (including senior stars Sam Tomkins and Mitchell Pearce plus free-scoring points-machine Adam Keighran) from last year’s squad left McNamara with some major holes to fill for 2024.

The acquisition of Théo Fages, Jayden Nikorima, Tevita Satae, Tariq Sims, Bayley Sironen and the surprise addition of Jordan Abdull on an initial one-year loan has brought a fresh new feel to the playing group and enabled McNamara to continue tweaking and improving in his evolutionary process.

He adds: “It’s my seventh start to a season here and you evolve your approach and learn every year how to improve preparations.

“We’ve pretty much got a new spine for 2024 and there are many advantages that it will bring. The biggest advantage I’ve seen so far is that the players have come back in absolutely fantastic shape and that’s allowed us the scope to try different things around the training environment.

“We knew that there were some big personalities and top-quality players leaving us, so that’s why we always focus on a complete restart every time we look towards a new season. There’s no point trying to build upon what you did last year because it’s gone, it’s history.

“You have to start with the basic fundamentals again because players have left and new ones have joined and, while we maintain our basic identity as a club and a playing group, it is all brand new again.

“We have new combinations everywhere so it is so important that we work extremely hard pre-season on getting things right. I’m not one for accepting that it will take a few rounds for our new systems to settle in; the time for that is now and we must practise and practise so that we are ready on day one.”

Abdull’s unexpected arrival in Perpignan raised many eyebrows, including those of bookmakers and competition sponsors Betfred, whose initial odds for 2024 had the Dragons finishing seventh.

“I don’t listen to any of that,” says McNamara.

“If you remember, everyone wrote us off at the beginning of last season and we ended up losing a Grand Final after conceding just one try, so it’s just a bit of fun and speculation.

“I’m really happy with the 2024 playing group and Jordan is a great addition. He’s one of the most naturally gifted players in Super League, although he’s going to have to work hard and push here because it’s not an easy team to get into. But he’s a real talent and I think it’s a great opportunity for him and for us.”

McNamara is hoping Abdull will follow in the footsteps of former Wakefield winger Tom Johnstone, who struggled with injuries until he joined the Dragons last season.

“Tom is a great kid and he’s worked really hard to get to where he is now. Our training environment, the way we do things and the climate that we are living in has really helped him.

“It’s a mental thing as much as anything; you’re out of the fish bowl at another club, you’re in another country and you’re clear in your mind, which will hopefully benefit Jordan in his career and Catalans as a club.”

McNamara says Abdull provides him with a new variety of options for 2024, adding, “I’m really happy with our halves but we were probably a bit light in terms of competition for spaces.

“With Jordan, we’ve added depth and we can now look at César Rougé and Jayden Nikorima training a little at fullback just in case we need them as cover for Arthur Mourgue.

“And our forwards are looking pretty good too. We had the surprise return of Siua Taukeiaho to training and he should be fit and ready to play around May or June, so that would provide a huge boost for us at that stage of the season.”

The Dragons completed three weeks of training pre-Christmas and have just returned from a week-long training camp in Spain, where they were briefed on the new rules for 2024 regarding high tackles and play-the-balls by two top RFL officials.

“We had a really good, solid week in Torremirona (a golf and spa resort just over the border in Spain) with a lot of learning, and pre-season so far has been good.

“We really benefited from the presence of referees Liam Moore and Tom Grant for a couple of days in our camp. It was absolutely invaluable for us and we thank the RFL for financing and supporting their travel to join us.

“It’s one thing being told the new rules and adopting them at training but it’s completely different to having referees alongside you, willing to give their time and assistance.

“They joined us at training and then conducted video sessions. They were also really helpful one-on-one; players and staff really appreciate that level of attention.

“As far as the impact that the new rules will have, the time spent with the referees has been one of the most important parts of our preparations.

“And we will have an English referee for our pre-season match so we can have first-hand knowledge of the new rules.

“We appreciate that commitment; referees are doing their jobs, interpreting the rules and they are keen to see the implementation go smoothly.

“Whilst you might not agree with some of the changes, at least you’ve got a clear understanding of the significant impact that they will have on the game.

“It works both ways. If we don’t understand and adapt to the new laws then there are going to be so many penalties and players are going to get suspended and I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.

“In the pre-season games we’ve seen so far it has impacted hugely and we have to adjust accordingly.

“We’ve a couple of weeks left before the season starts and only one real pre-season game against a French Select side, so our best practice is against ourselves.

“At training we’re putting our best players against our best players and we will keep ramping up the intensity until we feel we’re ready to go.”

Catalans will face a France XIII Elite 1 Select team at Stade Gilbert Brutus this Saturday and McNamara is grateful to the French Federation who are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the game in France in 2024.

“All credit to the French Select team; we’ve played them in the last couple of years and they’ve always given us a real test. They will have unlimited substitutes and can rotate as much as they want and there are always players that have some points to prove and ambitions to play for the Dragons, so the intensity is good.

“We all know the history here; every time a new player joins this club we explain in detail what the game has gone through, how it started and the many historic successes and challenges it has faced.

“We are all aware of the past and it’s up to us to be a major part of a new chapter and create many more memories moving forward.

“It’s so important that we remember the struggles the game has been through in its 90-year history but the future is what matters most and Catalans Dragons are a major success story for French Rugby League.

“The game has struggled for media attention for a long time in France. But our growth and success has given the game a boost and the best way we can help increase the profile of the sport is to keep winning.

“It’s an added responsibility but it runs parallel with our own ambitions. We are making finals and finishing alongside the top teams regularly now.

“Of course, the big ambition now is not only to reach a Grand Final but to win it.”

Even though McNamara believes in evolution more than mystical predictions and bookies’ odds, when pressed on who he thought would be the biggest threat to Catalans’ ambitions in 2024, he struck a sobering note for any aspirations from unfancied clubs this year.

“There has been a lot of talk about a lot of other teams as usual but there is a huge elephant in the room. St Helens recently won four consecutive Grand Finals, they are the current world champions and in their last game they came here to Perpignan in a major semi-final and just missed out in the last minute after a colossal contest.

“They are so strong, and they have been consistently so for over five years, so you have to put Saints at the top of the pile in terms of the team to look at.

“But we’re looking at ourselves first, every day at training. Only four teams have ever won the trophy. So can it change and will it change? Who knows?”