MARTYN SADLER reflects on a remarkable night in Perpignan
After the opening weekend of the Super League play-offs produced two disappointing attendances at Wigan and Warrington, it was surely a pleasure for anyone to witness the excitement and atmosphere of a sell-out crowd in Perpignan, as the Dragons’ supporters noisily welcomed the members of their team to the ground, cheered them throughout the match and then stayed behind after the final whistle to join in the celebrations for the team reaching the Super League Grand Final for the first time.
There weren’t too many Hull KR supporters in the Stade Gilbert Brutus, but those that did make the trip certainly did their bit too in creating such a vibrant atmosphere.
It may be hard to believe, but there are still people involved in Rugby League in our country who question the wisdom of having French clubs in our competitions, and who question how much the Catalans bring to Super League.
Of course, their main complaint relates to money, and the fact that the Catalans haven’t managed to persuade a French broadcaster to pay for the privilege of screening Super League matches.
But instead of complaining in that way, the other Super League clubs should thank the Catalans owner Bernard Guasch for keeping his club going over the last two seasons and spending a fortune doing so, while not being able to benefit from low-cost government loans like his fellow British club owners.
And after all that, the Catalans delivered the sort of event that Super League craves, and which was so visibly lacking in the play-off matches before last Friday night.
I suspect that is at least partly because this is the first time the Catalans have been in this position, playing a home game with the winner going through to a Grand Final at Old Trafford.
In other words, there is a rarity value to Thursday night’s event that would have been absent if the game had been played at Wigan, Leeds, St Helens or Warrington.
It illustrates the fact that we need a much wider array of winning clubs in Super League. If we regard the Grand Final and Challenge Cup Final as the arenas in which the two biggest trophies are decided, then each club in a twelve-team competition wins on average one trophy every six years, and it reaches one major final every three years. The problem is that too many of our clubs never reach a major final and that a very small number of clubs dominate, so their supporters will tend to take success for granted.
There is still some valid criticism of the Catalans for not producing enough French players, because of course part of the reason for introducing them to Super League in 2006 was a desire to regenerate the French national team so that it could compete once more against England in meaningful contests.
So far, that remit hasn’t been satisfied. And on Thursday night there were only five French players in the Catalans’ matchday squad. But the Catalans’ priority has been to avoid being relegated into the second tier, which of course is the priority of every club in Super League. Relegation forces clubs to recruit with an eye on the short term, rather than on the development of talent, unless the club is strong enough to have no relegation fears.
Four years ago, they stayed in Super League by the skin of their teeth when they defeated Leigh Centurions in the Million Pound Game.
But now the Catalans have transitioned into being a club at the top of the league and it’s hard to imagine they will decline back to being an also-ran after their achievements this year.
And of course next year there could be two French clubs in Super League, hopefully with both clubs giving more opportunities to more French players.
But what about Hull Kingston Rovers?
After finishing eleventh out of eleven last year, they have moved up five places in 2021. The same rate of progress next year would see them finish at the top of the league.
That may be unlikely, but the Robins have shown us this year that under the coaching of Tony Smith they are a club on the rise on the pitch and under the leadership of their chief executive Paul Lakin they are a club on the rise off the pitch. It’s interesting how often those two elements of a club come together on the same trajectory.
It’s possible to split clubs into four categories – Champions, contenders, also-rans and relegation fodder.
Whereas the Catalans are trying to transition from the second to the first category – and we’ll see whether they can do it this Saturday – the Robins have transitioned, I hope permanently, from the third to the second.
For both clubs, that has been a successful season.