What makes Catalans Dragons’ wheelchair team so good – and how can English clubs catch up?

Catalans’ thrashed Wigan for the second time this year in the Wheelchair Challenge Cup final – what makes the Dragons so good and how can Super League teams catch up?

THEY came, they saw and they conquered.

Twice already this year, Catalans Dragons’ wheelchair side have crossed the Channel for a major game against the best of England.

And twice they have not just won, but thrashed reigning Super League champions Wigan.

First in April, they beat the Warriors on their home pitch at Robin Park Leisure Centre by 68-28.

Then they were even more superior in June’s Challenge Cup final on neutral territory in Sheffield, coming away with an 81-18 success.

They reached the final with victories over Hull FC (78-6) and London Roosters (74-12), and retained a cup title they won for the first time last year by beating Leeds 66-20 in the final.

In other words, the Dragons are rather good.

They have a collection of outstanding individuals, including France international stars Nicolas Clausells and Jérémy Bourson, plus England World Cup winner Seb Bechara.

But the way they combine, be it through passing moves or devastating kicks downfield, can be breathtaking to watch, for the skill involved and the speed at which they execute.

“They just play at a completely different speed,” reflected Wigan captain Declan Roberts after the Challenge Cup final.

“The speed they play at, it’s almost a completely different game in France. There’s a lot less structure and a lot more ‘just go’. I think we dealt with that pretty well in the first half but it got away from us in the second half.”

Bechara explained it like this: “Physically I think we’re a much faster-paced team. Being so fit and fast, we’re available at all times. Everyone is available everywhere on the pitch. 

“It can be such a challenge when you’re defending if there are people coming at you from all over the place. I think we’re really connected in that way. 

“We like to play around and attack all fronts at all times. Having that many threats on you all the time is quite a challenge.”

He added: “We train on a really soft pitch so when we’re training it’s hard to push the chair. It’s like training with extra weights on your chair. 

“When we get onto a pitch like this (for the Cup final) and it’s really fast-paced, it’s so easy for us to push around. 

“Then in our own time we practice the basics a lot. When we get together, we can just play together and learn each other by heart. We know if we drop off the ball there, someone will be there. That extra connection we have is something that gives us the edge as well.”

That connection is off the field as well as on it, with the Dragons players certainly knowing how to have a laugh.

“I think that’s one thing that makes us a special team as well. We’re such a close group. We’re all close friends. There’s a lot of banter all the time,” said Bechara.

“Last time we came over, we got back to France and my car was parked at the airport. I couldn’t find my keys. I eventually had to be dropped off in my street, I didn’t have the keys to my house or my car. I had to wait in the street for an hour and a half until my girlfriend could come and open the door for me. 

“Twenty-four hours later, I found out that one of the players had stolen my keys as a joke, but completely forgot about the joke and that he had the keys! It’s stupid but we’re really close as a group. 

“We like to mess around, joke around. We communicate a lot, we know each other very well, we go out for beers together. After every single training session we’ll have a beer together. Although it’s not good as an athlete, I think it brings us together as a group. Sometimes that’s more important than being the best physical athlete you can.”

It is impossible to disagree when Bechara asserts that Catalans are the “best in the world”, especially as he lists: “We’ve won the French championship eleven times, the French Cup seven times, the Challenge Cup twice now, the European Cup. I just think we’re the best team out there and we’re waiting for the next challenge. 

“We lose sometimes and we love that, because when we do lose that’s when we get right back into it. What went wrong? We go back through things and work hard. It’s hard sometimes to keep that consistency and keep working hard but we’ve managed to stay humble.”

Bechara is keen to see Dragons Handi, as the wheelchair team are known, join the men’s team by competing in Super League, where they would face the likes of Wigan and Leeds – who beat them in the final when they first entered the Challenge Cup in 2022 – on a more regular basis.

And while that would make it significantly more difficult for the English sides to win their own title, even Roberts admitted that level of competition is needed to drive standards at home and close the gap.

He said: “(We need to) play them more. Keep playing them. Keep getting hammered. Losing is learning. It’s a cliché but it’s true. You learn more from games like that, big games against good teams.

“The speed and the physicality they play with is very different to over here. We play with a bit more structure here. They play a bit more, in terms of using the chairs and the tags and their bodies. I think that’s a biggest difference, and that gap needs to be bridged in some way.

“For me personally, tactically over here is where we’re going to be able to catch up. Tactically there’s definitely a gap we can close, and take it from there as a league and as individual teams.”

The bar has been set extraordinarily high and as Roberts says: “It’s up to everyone else to catch up with them.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 498 (July 2024)

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