Matt Whitley on Catalans Dragons form, Perpignan comforts and international progress

MATT WHITLEY is turning into the Daddy of the Dragons as he enters his fifth pre-season training programme in Perpignan.

The 26-year-old second-rower might still be on the youthful side of the playing group at Stade Gilbert Brutus, but he is rapidly establishing himself as one of the more senior members of the squad after four full seasons at Catalans Dragons, during which he has become a firm favourite with French supporters.

“It’s gone very quickly,” Whitley told League Express.

“But I’ve started my fifth pre-season here and it’s just as tough as the previous four; it doesn’t get any easier.”

The former Widnes Vikings’ junior product hit the ground running when he joined the Dragons in 2019 and he admits it was a daunting challenge.

He said, “When I first arrived, my missus was six months’ pregnant and it was quite a difficult time. But we handled it and we’ve got two little girls now (Emilia and Elodie), both born in Perpignan, so we must be doing something right.

“At the time I probably didn’t think I’d be here five years later. I came in off the back of being relegated with Widnes and I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I got in touch with Steve (McNamara) and here I am ripping in with the boys for the fifth time, looking forward to the season starting.”

Billinge-born Whitley was a devoted St Helens supporter as a child and grew up on the terraces of Knowsley Road. But he hasn’t taken any pleasure in his boyhood club’s success (four Grand Final victories) since he moved to France.

He added, “You stop supporting your original team when you start playing professionally for another club.

“All of your energy has to go into wanting your team to succeed, so I haven’t got one eye on any other side or their results, I’m fully focused on what we need to do here at Catalans.

“Nobody talks about any other club here; we are looking at ourselves and what we need to do to improve.”

Whitley just missed out on World Cup selection for England, but he is happy with his international progress.

He said, “I was very honoured to be chosen to captain England Knights in the off-season for the two internationals against France and Scotland and I think I put the same approach into that role, trying to improve myself each and every week.

“I feel like I’ve improved since I came here and, if that results in senior selection for England, nobody would be prouder to wear the jersey.

“Whatever comes for me will come, but my responsibility right now is doing my best for Catalans, playing my game and keeping my head down.”

Whitley’s stats-busting all-energy performances may tick all of the boxes for his coaches, but he can often go under the radar because he keeps his head down and he is seldom in the disciplinary headlines.

Catalans conceded too many penalties and suspensions in 2022 and were dumped out of the play-offs in a bad-tempered home clash against Leeds Rhinos after finishing fourth in the Super League table.

Whitley conceded that discipline had been the Dragons’ downfall, adding: “I missed that last game of the season with injury but I would have loved to have played in it.

“There was so much frustration; our discipline let us down in the end and, like I keep saying, we cannot react to outside influences. We have to stay focused on our own game, be disciplined with everything we do on and off the pitch and the rest will come.

“There is a good ambience in the group; we welcomed back the French boys from the World Cup this week and everybody is buzzing off each other.

“There’s a bit of friendly banter going on for the big football game (Saturday’s England v France World Cup quarter final), so whatever the result there will be some serious mickey-taking next week when we meet up.

“I’ve got two years left on my current contract, so I’m very settled and I’ll keep doing my best for the club and after that I’ll see where we go.

“I do miss a good bacon butty, but apart from that we’re very happy with our lives here in France and I’m going to give everything I’ve got to help Catalans progress.”

Catalans are working on plans for pre-season fixtures, although the regular clash against fellow French side Toulouse Olympique may have to be shelved because of the staggered start between Super League and the Championship in 2023.

More likely is a French Elite One championship select team as a warm-up for Les Dracs.

Meanwhile the Dragons continue to be linked with several possible new recruits, the latest being former Warrington Wolves prop Ben Murdoch-Masila.

The Tongan international, in his second season at New Zealand Warriors, is rumoured to be a potential target for Catalans, as is Sydney Roosters’ enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.