Change is in the air in France

STEVE BRADY speaks to Catalans Dragons coach STEVE McNAMARA about his side’s prospects for the 2023 season.

CATALANS DRAGONS’ coach Steve McNamara is in the middle of his fifth full pre-season of preparing for a new season, but it all feels brand new as he continues to evolve as a coach along with his playing group at Stade Gilbert Brutus.

Every day’s a school day for the 51-year-old former England boss and assistant coach to Trent Robinson in the NRL with Sydney Roosters.

Speaking from a club training camp at a spa hotel complex in Spanish Catalonia, McNamara told League Express what to expect from this year’s different Dragons.

It’s the first time the club has organised a residential camp and McNamara has been impressed with the results.

He said, “The location, venue and facilities were first class and it was a really good environment for us to spend the week and live together.

“We learned a lot about each other on and off the field and gained some cohesion and clarity, which was great because in reality that was only our second full week of pre-season training.”

It’s been a whirlwind for the Dragons’ latest recruits from down under, Siosiua Taukeiaho and Adam Keighran, who only recently jetted into France from Australia and were immediately taken to Spain.

McNamara added, “Adam got here just before Christmas so he’s had a little more time to settle in and Siua joined us in the new year, so he’s hit the ground running from Australia to France, then Spain and back.

“But they are both quality players and quality people and it’s already clear that they are enjoying things so far.

“Siua is a genuine leader. I was lucky enough to work with him at the Roosters (McNamara was assistant coach to Trent Robinson in 2013/14) when he was obviously a much younger player, but even then, you could see his ethics and approach were impeccable. He worked hard to get into the team and he’s made incredible progress since then.

“He is a genuine leader, one of those alpha male middles who doesn’t need to shout and carry on, he just has this presence. His knowledge of the game is sensational and it’s great to see that already he is taking some of our younger middles under his wing.”

McNamara hints that there will be further recruitment to come, adding: “We have the ability to recruit more players to the squad. But will it happen before the season starts or during the early stages? I’m not sure, it depends on how we’re doing and what’s available.

“We’re really comfortable with our current squad; we’re in good nick and we’ve got some good balance already but we have the ability to strengthen and we will strengthen as and when that is appropriate.

“It’s really handy to have those couple of salary cap slots available and we will use them if necessary.”

Tom Johnstone, Romain Navarrete and Manu Ma’u are the other three new faces at the Brutus. But there is another signing that could have an even greater influence on the club’s future.

The Dragons have drafted in former Scottish rugby union prop and French rugby union coach Neil McIlroy as Director of Sport and McNamara said, “He’s probably the biggest signing we have made this off-season, which is a big statement when you look at the quality of our recruits.

“It was an area of our organisation that we needed to strengthen. I was introduced to Neil by Frank Azéma, the Toulon rugby union coach, who had worked closely with him and I was massively impressed.

“He ticks all the boxes we needed in terms of sports administration and he’s already had a huge impact on our organisation. Someone with such a skill-set and experience makes everyone else’s job much easier to do; he has enabled people in other areas to concentrate on their departments and improve their specific roles.

“Neil’s appointment is the most important one we have made, not just as a team, but as a club. We needed that and he has started off really well for us.”

Has the Dragons coach already got his first-team line-up inked in for Round One?

“You have an image in your mind about your starting 17 but you can only make that judgement from training sessions. We’ve got one trial game against France B, but we’re not able to have friendlies against Super League or Championship opponents so I’ll base my decisions on how the group trains together.

“I would pick a team from the squad that trained in Spain that would be different to the one I would have picked a week earlier, so it changes all the time, exactly as it does throughout the season.

“We’ll have six young French players from our reserves coming into the squad, all of whom played against Wigan last year. They bring new energy and a drive and passion to improve and learn. That is so important for any coach to have in a playing group.

“The top end of your squad is obviously the most influential during the season but newcomers at the bottom are absolutely vital. They bring new ideas and skill-sets and they will all play in a number of games for us this season.

“For many reasons we had to pick that young side that went to Wigan and it gave us a great opportunity to look at them, not just on the pitch, but also how they behave before and after the game.

“Their attitude is crucial if they want to progress. They’ve got a taste of it now and the challenge is to establish themselves consistently in the starting 17.

“There’s a lot of work for them to do before they push other players out and we will be monitoring their progress very closely.”

At the other end of the scale in the playing group are senior players like Sam Tomkins and Michael McIlorum and McNamara will rely heavily on their experience and attitude once again this year.

He said, “What never changes with players like that is the level of competitiveness they have. You will see subtle changes in the way they play as they get older but Micky’s combative and intimidating style in the middle has been with him from day one and it will never go away.

“The way he takes us forward, especially in defence, has been vital for us and will continue to be so. He has added lots of subtleties to his game and he was rightly selected for England in the World Cup.

“Sam’s the same, he competes at absolutely everything, and if he’s lost a yard of speed, he’s gained it back between the ears. He knows the game inside out and he sees things and makes decisions quicker than others.

“It’s a fact of life that you’re not as quick physically as you were as a teenager but his speed of thought more than makes up for that. There may be subtle changes to Sam’s game this year and we have spoken to him about that.

“Everybody evolves and learns things along the route. When you are at a club like this in a different country and everything else that is involved, you have to learn and adapt quickly and constantly.

“You learn lessons from previous seasons and look at things you did, good or bad, and bundle them up in a package in order to improve and do your best for you and your team.

“Teams change, personnel changes and coaches are just the same. I’ll make subtle changes as to how we do things this year, like I do every year. If you stand still, you’re actually moving backwards.”

Squad (2023 numbers to be confirmed): Arthur Mourgue, Tom Davies, Fouad Yaha, Mitchell Pearce, Michael McIlorum, Julian Bousquet, Matt Whitley, Mike McMeeken, Benjamin Garcia, Alrix Da Costa, Paul Séguier, Mickael Goudemand, Matthieu Laguerre, Arthur Romano, Tyrone May, César Rougé, Sam Tomkins, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Adam Keighran, Tom Johnstone, Romain Navarrete, Manu Ma’u, Léo Laurent, Mike Parenti, Bastien Scimone, Ugo Tison, Tanguy Zenon.

Ins: Siosiua Taukeiaho (Sydney Roosters), Adam Keighran (Sydney Roosters), Tom Johnstone (Wakefield Trinity), Romain Navarrete (Toulouse Olympique), Manu Ma’u (Hull FC), Léo Laurent, Mike Parenti, Bastien Scimone, Ugo Tison, Tanguy Zenon (all St Estève XIII Catalan).

Outs: Samisoni Langi (Wakefield Trinity), Dean Whare (Pia Donkeys), Josh Drinkwater (Warrington Wolves), Gil Dudson (Warrington Wolves) Sam Kasiano (Warrington Wolves), Benjamin Jullien (Pia Donkeys), Corentin Le Cam (Céret XV), Mathieu Cozza (Featherstone Rovers), Joe Chan (Melbourne Storm), Florian Vailhen (Pia Baroudeurs)

This preview of the Catalans’ 2023 season comes from this week’s issue of League Express. You can take out a subscription by going to