Super League: 2nd (P27 W20 L7 F722 A420 PD+302 Pts40); Play-offs: Runners-up; Challenge Cup: Sixth round
Catalans refreshed their squad significantly for the 2023 season and if they were to have any chance of going back to their 2021 Grand Final peak, their new signings would need to have a big impact.
They returned to Old Trafford for a second time, and some of their signings were indeed huge.
Many of the headlines went to winger Tom Johnstone, who enjoyed a prolific season in France after so many injury setbacks at Wakefield.
But Adam Keighran proved a brilliant addition from the NRL, while Matt Ikuvalu, Manu Ma’u and Siua Taukeiaho made a difference when fit.
Combined with the existing class of captain Benjamin Garcia, forwards like Mike McMeeken and Matt Whitley, and of course the retiring Sam Tomkins, Catalans were an irresistible force at times.
The Dragons showed they were serious by opening the season with five consecutive victories, and after a short slump they hit their stride through the summer with a healthier squad.
A run of eleven wins from twelve Super League games put them four points clear at the top and seemingly on course for a second League Leaders’ Shield crown in three years.
But Wigan had other ideas, pulling off a shock 34-0 triumph in Perpignan. Another defeat the following week, to Hull KR, saw Catalans knocked off the top and the Warriors capitalised.
Still, a top-two finish meant a home play-off, and their achievement in coming from behind to topple the four-time reigning champions St Helens should not be underestimated.
While Tomkins came to the fore with the winning try on that occasion, neither he nor his club could repeat those heroics in the Grand Final as Wigan again had their day.
That final, albeit huge, step to becoming champions is all that now eludes the Dragons, who have otherwise proven themselves to be one of Super League’s elite clubs.
The revival of Tom Johnstone’s career has been one of the feel-good stories of the season, with the popular player finally overcoming his injury struggles to enjoy a brilliant campaign.
The winger scored 27 tries, one shy of Wigan’s top-scorer Abbas Miski, while making 121 tackle busts and a total of 3,375 metres – the second-highest figure in the division.
Johnstone was somehow the only Catalans player in the Super League Dream Team, with goal-kicking centre Adam Keighran particularly unfortunate to miss out after also excelling in his first year in Perpignan.
Keighran scored twelve tries, set up a further ten and contributed 198 points in total after moving from Sydney Roosters, and he’s already on the move again to Wigan.
There was a strong case for the Dream Team inclusion of Benjamin Garcia too, as the Dragons’ skipper delivered yet another consistent campaign.
With 863 tackles and 81 tackle busts, his influence in both attack and defence was clear to see, setting an example for the rest of the team to follow.
“We were certainly warm enough for the kick-off – that’s what running away from bulls does for you!” Catalans coach Steve McNamara saw the funny side after some of his players were forced to flee the Stade Gilbert Brutus pitch from an escaped bull during their warm-up for a match against St Helens.
“It’s been a special year. At the start of it, I just wanted to play as many games as I could. I played 32, which is unheard of for me. I want to play rugby. It’s my job but also my life. It’s everything for me, my wife and my kid. To be awarded with accolades and get to a Grand Final, which is one thing I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid, makes this year extra special.” Tom Johnstone reflecting on a dream season which ended with a Man of Steel nomination and an England recall.
“I think he changed the club with the way he is. Not only on the field, but also how he trains, he is a top guy, he is a professional.” Captain Benjamin Garcia on the influence of the retiring Sam Tomkins on Catalans.
4 – consecutive top-four Super League finishes, a run going back to 2020.
233 – career tries for Sam Tomkins, with the final one, a last-minute match-winner to send Catalans to the Grand Final, sure to be one of the best remembered.
2 – yellow cards in the Grand Final, shown to Adam Keighran and Tom Davies, after just one previous sinbin in the event’s 26-year history (ironically against Catalans, to St Helens’ Tommy Makinson, in 2021).
Catalans reached the Grand Final for the second time in their history, in circumstances that will live long in the memory.
St Helens led a tense yet gripping semi-final 6-2 going into the last 15 minutes, but two further Adam Keighran goals levelled the scores with seven to go.
With just one of those left, Tomkins split through the Saints’ defence for a brilliant try, single-handedly winning the game and sparking joyous scenes that lasted well into the Perpignan night.
Catalans became a model of consistency for much of the season, but were still subject to a shock result or two, like their overturning at Leeds or home defeat to Huddersfield.
But one of their worst displays came against the league’s best team, with dire consequences when Wigan won 34-0 in France at the end of August.
A big home crowd watched stunned as the Warriors ran amok on a pitch ruined by a fungal infection, scoring six unanswered tries and laying down their own title credentials.
PICTURE OF THE SEASON
Tom Johnstone slides over the short Old Trafford run-off towards the advertising hoardings during Catalans’ Grand Final defeat (above).