COLUMN: Is Steve McNamara a better coach than most give him credit for?

Sometimes, things can stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Steve McNamara is probably no stranger to flippant, throwaway comments aimed his way over the coaching career, and a recent Catalans fixture in England was no exception. You know the usual stuff: McBanana this, McBanana that; how did you ever get the England job, and so on and so forth.

Comments like these have followed the 46-year-old around for a number of years now: and it’s always been a little lost on me why, in truth.

The knives were out for McNamara after the opening few rounds this season again. With Catalans toiling at the wrong end, the usual jokes were surfacing about the former England coach and his credentials as a boss. Rightly or wrongly, McNamara was subject to all sorts of abuse.

But as the Dragons made their way into the top-eight last weekend courtesy of a fantastic victory against Castleford – more on that later – is Steve McNamara simply a better coach than most give him credit for?

Clearly, he is not a contender for Super League coach of the year when there are guys like Justin Holbrook still in employment elsewhere. That much is obvious. But McNamara is slowly imprinting his presence on the south of France and Les Dracs: and it is starting to show.

Let’s start from the present day and work our way backwards. McNamara made it abundantly clear at this year’s Super League pre-season media day that it would take time for Catalans to click this year, owing to the amount of players they had away at the World Cup, and subsequently returning late to pre-season training.

In actuality, they had almost a dozen players in the French squad – as well as the likes of Paul Aiton, Michael McIlorum Sam Moa and Brayden Wiliame representing their countries, too.

That would inevitably have an impact on how Catalans would start the year. Simply put, they were always going to start slow – and that proved to be the case. The Dragons appeared nailed-on for the Qualifiers after the opening month or so: but McNamara was insistent that the tide would turn eventually.

And now? The job isn’t done – far from it, in fact – but with nine wins from their last 11 games in all competitions, Catalans are not only in the driving seat to avoid the Qualifiers this year, but they are also one win from Wembley and the Challenge Cup final. Granted, they will have to beat St Helens to reach the final – but their current form, illustrated by how they beat a Castleford side that were in great form, underlines they are now a serious threat to anyone they face.

McNamara’s time preceding his arrival at Catalans was spent in Australia, working at both Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors as an assistant coach. The people I’ve spoken to who knew McNamara well from his time year speak very highly of him indeed; he is widely-regarded as a very talented coach.

And that, I thought, was underlined during his time in charge of England now. This is not to detract from what Wayne Bennett is doing with the national side now, but McNamara put some firm foundations in place which Bennett is now wholly reaping the rewards of.

Perhaps the one shame is that their association and links with the FA at St George’s Park, driven by McNamara and generally assumed to be a success, ended. But under McNamara, England were one individual error – out of his control, by the way – away from reaching a World Cup final in 2013. They won a Test series against a New Zealand side in 2015 who, at that time, were regarded as potentially the best team in the world.

McNamara is associated with the fall from grace at Bradford – or at least part of it. But the facts are that during his first season in charge, they came within a whisker of reaching the Grand Final. And although they slowly wilted as a major force thereafter, off-field turbulence was beginning to strangle the life out of the former Super League champions by that stage.

McNamara is also building for 2019 at Catalans with the signings of players such as Sam Tomkins and, if rumours are to be believed, Matty Smith. He’s been the focal point of much derision in recent times, but I think it’s a fair assumption that McNamara is actually a much, much better coach than people give him credit for.

In a strange kind of way, McNamara will have known that the usual comments that are aimed his way have had a different tone to them of late. Perhaps that’s because they’re tinged with frustration that his Catalans side are winning.