Why Steve McNamara believes France are closing gap to England

MOMENTUM is building for the double-header men and women’s internationals between France and England in Toulouse at the end of June and a leading figure in the game is predicting a new era of increased rivalry between the two nations.

It might not be apparent from recent results, but the gap is closing between England and France, according to Catalans coach Steve McNamara.

The former England coach has spent seven years working as a club coach developing the best of French talent to face the best of British in Super League and he is in the perfect position to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the two nations.

“It’s everyone’s ambition for England-France to become a fiercely competitive rivalry,” McNamara told League Express.

“If we had two top quality European nations battling it out on a regular basis, it would raise standards for when the southern hemisphere nations come along.

“The growing number of French players gaining Super League experience, thanks to the Dragons, and hopefully Toulouse Olympique next year, can only improve national standards.

“There are many reasons why France have struggled against England, the main one being the comparatively small player pool the French have to choose from. Two French teams in Super League will make a difference.”

McNamara pointed to the development of young players by the Dragons, which has given French talent a pathway to the top. 

The Olympians’ new chairman Olivier Dubois has made it his first priority to establish a singular training and development facility for the club’s Academy. 

And McNamara welcomes that initiative, adding: “It’s a simple equation, the more French players feeding through to the top means a better French national team.

“I’m sure there will come a time where we will have competitive fixtures against England once more, but until they have a bigger playing pool they will struggle.

“The nucleus of the French squad are all quality players, in good form and playing well at a high level. If they can get the best French team out on that pitch in Toulouse, it has the makings of a great game.

“There is little difference between the top 13 players in France and the top 13 in England, it’s just that when you go beyond the best starting line-ups, England have a massive advantage in depth of choice and competition for places.

“Ben Garcia, Théo Fages, Paul Séguier and Arthurs Mourgue and Romano are as competitive as any player you will find anywhere. There is no difference in attitude, approach, fitness or skill levels between the top English and French players.

“Yes, the culture is different in this country, it’s a relaxed lifestyle down here where the day revolves around a two-hour lunch.

“The weather and the conditions lean towards a more relaxed pace of life. But once they put on their boots they are 100 percent committed and a match for anyone.

“The players understand that they are in an English competition, battling at the highest level for a number of years now.

“Many of them have been to a couple of Grand Finals now so they know the intensity of the challenge.

“But the big difference is that if England lose a couple of players to injury or suspension they can pick any number of replacements. It’s not the same for France at the moment.”

Catalans had their first-ever all-French spine in a Super League game last month against St Helens after Jordan Abdull limped off early with a hamstring injury.

“We won that game against Saints with a largely French team, with homegrown players in all of the key decision-making positions,” said McNamara.

“Alrix (Da Costa) was the broadcaster’s choice as man of the match and it was fully deserved, he has been playing out of his skin in the absence of our number nine Michael McIlorum to suspension or injury.”

Da Costa was at hooker with Arthur Mourgue at fullback, César Rougé and Fages in the halves and French international captain Garcia in his usual loose-forward role for 75 minutes of the 14-8 win over St Helens.

“The French players are giving me some great options throughout the squad,” added McNamara.

“I will never pick a team on anyone’s nationality; it just happens that we have a team at the moment which is winning games and it is largely made up of French players.”

McNamara has Fouad Yaha, Matthieu Laguerre, Séguier and Franck Maria on call to add more French flavour to his selections, plus 22-year-old halfback or hooker Ugo Tison, who is on a month’s loan at London.

“These players are the perfect example for young French players, they are grafting away trying to earn some first-team game-time and when they get their chance they are taking it with both hands,” added McNamara.

“This experience is good for us as a club and good for France coach Laurent Frayssinous.

“Playing games at the top level is the challenge for all young players, whether they are in England or France.

“César and Alrix have been getting decent game time and alongside Théo and Arthur Mourgue, Laurent has got some interesting options now in key positions.

“I think the France–England clash in Toulouse could be much closer than some people think.”

The France v England men and women’s double-header, followed by a Championship fixture between Toulouse and Featherstone, will take place on the same day – Saturday, June 29 – at Stade Ernest Wallon.

First published in League Express newspaper, Issue 3,428 (April 29, 2024)

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