Feature: How the Dragons are producing top young talent

Young French stars Morgan Escaré and Eloi Pelissier have lit up Super League this year, and as Ricky Wilby reports, they are unlikely to be the last…

The conveyor belt that produced the hugely talented Morgan Escaré and Eloi Pelissier is set for a significant boost in 2015.

Next year will not only be the tenth season that the Catalans Dragons will line up in Super League, but will also be the first year that they have entered a junior team into the under-19s Academy league.

It can be of no co-incidence that after Dragons chief executive Christophe Jouffret’s son Louis took the leap to join up with the Warrington under-19s squad, that Catalans are now taking the opportunity to look to the future and invest in their own academy.

It is a huge step forward for the Dragons, who have in the past been criticised by some looking in for not developing their own talent pool in the same way that perhaps Leeds, St Helens, Wigan and Warrington do. It has been a tough ride for Catalans, who have often had their more talented youngsters poached by the TV rich French rugby union clubs.

This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet

“It’s a great news for the club and for the French Rugby League,” chief executive Jouffret told Rugby League World. “We want to take a step forward in the youth development system and we’ll now offer to our young French players the best oppositions in the Northern Hemisphere and see them experience, train and play in a professional environment.

“Thierry Dumaine is the best person to manage this project thanks to his experience with the French Federation and the France Academy teams.”

New arrival Dumaine has worked with the French Rugby League academy over the past five years. He added: “It’s an exciting project and I’m delighted to be a part of it. There is a lot of quality in France and we’ll be able from 2015 to gauge ourselves against the Academy teams of the Super League clubs.”

In previous years, junior players in the area have been fast tracked to train with the Catalans and play their early years with UTC (Union Treize Catalan), under the tutelage of Steve Deakin, who has guided UTC through the French Elite 1 season for the past five years.

Catalan Dragons full-back Morgan Escare is one of the hottest prospects in the game right now. ©RLphotos
Catalan Dragons full-back Morgan Escare is one of the hottest prospects in the game right now. ©RLphotos

Despite some local businessmen throwing money at certain Elite 1 teams, Deakin, the Catalans and UTC stayed true to their principles to promoting young French players, with last season’s squad having an average age of 23.

Deakin explained: “For me, the results matter, but more importantly, my remit has been about developing players and preparing them for the rigours of Super League. We have worked closely with the Catalans coaching and conditioning staff and have built a sound foundation for those players that have made their Super League debuts over the past few seasons.”

It’s an area that Deakin is clearly proud of, but the logistics of using UTC as their academy team have proved difficult, the example of Scott Dureau moving to Sydney Roosters to get some game time after injury last month only served to highlight the need for the Catalans to run a team at the same time as the Super League season, and not August to May as the present Elite 1 system currently runs.

Despite the logistical problems of the French domestic season, the Catalans have managed to blood 14 players into the first team during Deakin’s tenure at UTC – the likes of Julien Bousquet, Mickael Simon, Frederic Vaccari and Tony Gigot all have a wealth of Super League experience between them and Kevin Larroyer has spent the season wowing the KC Lightstream crowds at Hull KR, having moved to the Dragons after impressing in the Championship with Toulouse.

There are, however, two players who have come through the Catalans set up and grabbed the headlines and opportunities over the past three seasons, namely Escaré and Pelissier.

Pelissier debuted for the Catalans in February 2011 as former coach Trent Robinson promoted a host of young French talent to the first team after taking the reins, and is now closing in on his 100th Super League appearance for the Dragons.

“It is something I’m proud of that I have made my debut and after that, I have now played well enough that I have played in a World Cup with France,” Pelissier said.

The hooker is kept grounded by his parents, Magali and Robert. Together with Eloi, his sister Leonie, and cousin, they run a beachside restaurant in Canet.

“This is where I can come to relax away from rugby. It gives me a break from training and I know that we have to work hard to be successful in business, it is the same with rugby – I have to work hard to be successful and stay in the team.

“It is important for me to play hard and play tough. Sometimes I can push a little too hard but I learn with experience that I have to control my edge and make the right decisions. If I can do that, I hope I can stay in the team and play good rugby for the team.”

Pelissier is now mid-way through his fourth season since making his debut in a 14-38 loss to Wakefield but it seems like he has been around much longer after becoming an integral part of the way the Catalans play. So high were the quality of his performances this season when Ian Henderson was injured, that coach Laurent Frayssinous was able to ensure Henderson was fully recovered rather than rushing him back to action.

Pelissier said: “I thought when Ian Henderson got injured that it was unlucky for him and for the team, but for me, it was my chance to show what I can do. I did the same for France against England when Kane Bentley was injured in the first minute and I showed that I can play eighty minutes.”

Pelissier was apparently a target for a host of Super League clubs as his contract wound down, but with a recent two year extension in the bag, he is now looking forward to his future with the Dragons
“My aim is to keep impressing for the Catalans. My hope was when Ian Henderson came back into the team that Laurent was able to find a way to play us both with lots of minutes so we can both help the team. So far he has been able to do that, and apart from Wigan, we have played well recently.

Eloi Pelissier is one of Super League’s best young hookers. ©RLPhotos

“I have worked hard this year to improve my game and also my attitude, I hope I have got some stupid decisions I have made on the field out of my game and I hope that I am playing smarter with the help of the coaches and other players.”

If Pelissier is the stalwart of the young Catalans players, then hot prospect is most certainly Escaré.
The fullback made a try-scoring debut against Bradford Bulls last March and such was his impact, he was short-listed for Super League’s Young Player of the Year at the end of season Man of Steel awards.

This writer was fortunate to witness Escaré scoring four spectacular tries for UTC the week before standing in for Brent Webb as the former Leeds fullback suffered a season ending back injury. Escaré then raced over for 18 tries in 20 appearances throughout the rest of the campaign, forcing his way into the France World Cup squad in the process and making his international debut against USA in Toulouse in a warm-up game.

“Last season was a big shock to me, I didn’t expect to play so many games for the Catalans,” Escaré explained. “Certainly playing for France was a big surprise. For me to score so many tries, it is very pleasing for me.

“I have to thank Brent Webb. When he was injured, he helped me, he came to training, went through my videos with me and helped me to communicate to the rest of the team and help to organise from my position. It was a great help for me to have him here to help me, after all, he has won Grand Finals and played for New Zealand.”

Escaré is a softly spoken young man, quietly going about his business, always willing to pose for photographs and sign autographs as he is now mobbed when leaving the stadium after a game

“It is very strange for me. When I played with UTC, it was very relaxed – to make the step to Super League, the difference on the field is enormous, but also the difference off the field, we have so many more commitments.”

This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet

Not that the 21-year-old is complaining.

“It is a dream to come true, I’m a local player from the area, to represent the Catalan Dragons gives me enormous pride and I hope to do the jersey justice. Only a few years ago, I was coming here to watch the games as a fan, now I’m here as a player. I enjoy everyday, it is a dream.

“I’m very happy to play well for the team and for the supporters, if I can keep doing that, then hopefully I can stay in the team.”

There seems to be very little danger of Escaré not being in the team – his rise in such a short space of time should be an inspiration to many young, aspiring Catalans players, and the club certainly hope that he will be the latest of many players that make it at Super League level.

It is more than noticeable that while the likes of Casty, Elima, Guisset and Ferriol all became synonymous with the Dragons, there was still a dearth of young, French talent in the key positions at the club and the likes of Pelissier and Escaré breaking through can only inspire the future generations and hope that, in time, it helps to create a successful national team.

After all, that is why the Dragons were brought into Super League.