The Garry Schofield Column: French Rugby League showing its colours

Garry Schofield reflects on the success of Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique this season.

Congratulations to Catalans Dragons on making the Grand Final – I reckon we’re in for an intriguing, if a bit brutal, big match against St Helens on Saturday.

I thought Hull KR might have enough left in the tank and that Tony Smith might have been able to come up with the tactical plan to get a win in their play-off semi-final in Perpignan.

But fair play to Steve McNamara and his Catalans players. They produced another bright performance when it really mattered and fully deserve the chance to try to deny Saints a third successive title.

With admirable backing from Bernard Guasch, Steve’s done a fine job, bringing in some top players like Sam Tomkins and James Maloney and working hard to sort out both disciplinary and consistency issues.

It’s taken a while, and you look back to that first Super League game between Paris St Germain and Sheffield Eagles back in 1996 and reflect on what has happened with those two clubs, but Rugby League in France, if not South Yorkshire, really is resurgent.

Catalans and Toulouse, who face Featherstone in Sunday’s Million Pound Game, have topped Super League and the Championship respectively, and now both are gearing up for clashes against heartland clubs with the possibility that there will be two French teams in the top-flight next year, while the country plans to host the 2025 World Cup.

Paris SG, founded just a year before Super League began, lasted only two seasons, but Catalans and Toulouse are built on far firmer foundations, and of course the game has been around a long time in those places.

But these are unprecedented times, and it was great to get a feel of the buzz and passion generated by big noisy crowds at both the Stade Gilbert Brutus and Stade Ernest Wallon through the TV coverage.

It was also good to read and hear about how the two clubs have gained widespread coverage in the French media, and hopefully that can be built on, however this weekend’s matches go.

Neither club is the finished article – I’d like to see more French youngsters playing the game for a start.

But they are making really solid progress and, if things are handled correctly, they will be able to benefit from all the publicity they have had, both in terms of growing the game at grassroots level and gaining regular spectators and sponsors.

Meanwhile, let’s give credit to Hull KR for a fine season.

I said last week that they needed to pass the ball to try and wear out Catalans’ big pack, but it needed to be done in a more controlled way, because at times, they seemed to be shipping the ball for the sake of it.

That said, they did exceptionally well to get to within one game of the Grand Final, and hopefully they can carry on the good work in 2022.

Leeds were less impressive against Saints in their semi-final on Friday.

I thought it was men against boys, to be honest, with Kristian Woolf’s side superior in every area.

Leeds looked like they were trying to make the game into what folk like to call an arm-wrestle, but Saints were having none of it.

Both Saints and Catalans have big, dynamic packs, lively halves and efficient backlines, and Saturday’s game looks set to be about which set of forwards can get the upper hand and give the others the platform to do their thing.

Like the NRL Grand Final, I think it’s going to be an intense, close affair and while Penrith got the better of South Sydney, I think Saints will edge it – and I’ll predict an 18-14 scoreline.

The Toulouse versus Featherstone contest also has plenty of appeal.

Again, I think it will be tight, and there’s no doubting the quality Toulouse have in their ranks.

But Rovers won’t be intimidated, and having won in France in the play-offs two years ago, I think they could repeat the feat and claim a 25-18 victory.

Welcome back, Franny and Chris

It’s good that Frances Cummins and Chris Chester are back in the game with Wakefield and Leigh respectively.

Franny has plenty of experience, and will have learned a lot from coaching both Bradford and Widnes in difficult circumstances.

He knows Willie Poching well from their time together at Leeds, and should make an ideal right-hand man for him at Trinity.

Having left Wakefield in August, Chezzy has become Leigh’s director of rugby, a role which always raises questions in my mind.

For me, it’s an unnecessary role in Rugby League and puts unnecessary pressure on the coach.

But Derek Beaumont seems to like having someone doing that job, and as the man who foots the bill, he gets to call the tune!

Craig Lingard’s deserved award

I was really pleased to see Batley’s Craig Lingard win the Championship Coach of the Year award.

After the job he has done in guiding his side to fourth place in the league and the semi-finals of the play-offs, it was fully deserved.

Toulouse proved a step too far, but there’s absolutely no shame in losing to such a strong side assembled on a much larger budget.

I got to know Craig when we were both involved at Keighley, where he did a terrific job in testing circumstances.

He has a great knack of identifying players who are within the price range and will come together and form an effective team.

Craig’s good on both the tactical and motivational side, and, having played for Batley in the Championship for so long, he knows both the club and the division really well and understands the demands on part-time players and the commitment needed by them.

Batley are a great, historic club, really well run by Chairman Kevin Nicholas and chief executive Paul Harrison.

They are realistic about who they are and what they can achieve, and I admire the way they go about things and think about the bigger picture of the game as a whole, rather than just themselves.

Going back to Craig, it’s great to see a young British coach who has steadily risen through the ranks gain some recognition.

You don’t really hear his name being linked with Super League vacancies, and he works hard at his career away from the game, but I’m sure there are plenty of people within Rugby League paying close attention to what he is doing, so you never know!

Thanks for the good wishes

Finally for this week, I’d like to say a big thank you for all the messages and support I received before and after my eye operation last week.

And once again, my gratitude to the great staff at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, and I’m pleased to say the specialist is happy with the way the surgery went.

As I explained previously, I suffered a detached left retina in December 2019, and despite seven operations and three laser treatments, the damage proved impossible to repair.

Having lost the sight in that eye but still being in a lot of pain, we decided I should have it removed, which has now happened.

When the healing has finished, I will have an artificial eye inserted, meaning I keep my looks (I’m not going to describe them as good!) but should have far less discomfort.

I totted up the other day that I’ve made more than 50 hospital visits since the problem first occurred, but hopefully there won’t be many more.

I’ve already been able to significantly reduce my use of eye drops, and I’m looking forward to getting some sort of normality back to my life.

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