The Catalans’ journey from Super League vacation destination to game-changing force | Super League
When the Catalans Dragons play their first Super League Grand Final on Saturday night, those who have been with the French club from the start may give themselves a moment of reflection. Every sporting story has a pivotal moment and for the Catalans, who are set to create even more rugby league history this weekend, it happened almost four years ago to the day.
“I was numb,” admits Alex Chan, the club’s general manager, recalling his emotions from the Million Pound Game 2017. “I remember everything because I knew the consequences if it had gone wrong.” It had been another disappointing season for the Catalans, but this time the Dragons were in real danger of being relegated to the Super League.
After Leigh at half-time in the playoffs to determine which team would qualify for the championship, the sport’s last big hope for expansion looked like it was on the verge of crumbling. A sport confined to its northern heart was on the verge of losing its bastion of possibility in France.
However, this day will end in relief. The Catalans fought to beat Leigh, securing their place in the Super League. Then, just eight months later, they lifted the Challenge Cup at Wembley and, since that day, they haven’t looked back. But for club stalwarts such as Chan, Saturday’s Grand Final debut lasted for years.
Three months before this Million Pound Game, the Catalans had appointed former England coach Steve McNamara as head coach. Responsible for keeping the Dragons in the Super League, he was already looking further. “It wasn’t in the best place when I got there,” McNamara recalls. “I didn’t ask too many questions, just because I didn’t want to know the answers. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have accepted the job. But I knew there was potential given the Perpignan’s passion for rugby union. “
McNamara had inherited a club with deep-rooted cultural issues, dating back to the launch of the Dracs in 2006. “It’s clearly a great place to live, work and bring your family to live,” he says. “But you’re here to work, and if you’re doing well, then you’re enjoying the lifestyle. For a long time, it was the opposite for the overseas players who came.
“Reputations stick. Perceptions stick. We had to work incredibly hard to convince people it was not like it was before, and we don’t flood the beach bars in June and July instead of working hard and crashing. It was one of the first things we had to tackle, and these changes don’t happen overnight.
Slowly but surely McNamara’s Catalans eroded the idea that a Perpignan contract doubles as a public holiday or, if you came from the southern hemisphere, a place to end your playing career with a lucrative paycheck. Signings such as Sam and Joel Tomkins, as well as established Super League stars like Michael McIlorum, have gradually changed the mindset in the south of France.
“The appetite in this region for the rugby league is huge,” admits Joel Tomkins. “Every village and town has a club, it looks awfully like places like Wigan and St Helens in England.” The unwavering support from owner Bernard Guasch, who secured the Catalans’ entry into the Super League in 2007, has been vital.
But the Dragons limped into relative mediocrity, with a string of overseas signings from big-name names in the fall of their careers that broke their promises: Things had to change. McNamara’s arrival heralded a new approach and, less than a year later, they responded to their criticism in the summer of 2018 by beating Warrington at Wembley.
“We went to the Challenge Cup final in 2007, but we lost, and three years ago we were kind of like a bridesmaid,” Chan says. “That day changed the rugby league in the UK. My goal has always been to take the game away from the heart and strengthen it. It exploded here in France after winning the cup, and the snowball effect was huge.
With increased investment and a focus on developing young French talent – such as Arthur Mourgue, the full-back or the live hooker who will feature at Old Trafford – as well as the success of Toulouse, who are the big favorites to join. the Catalans in the Super League in 2022, The French rugby championship is flourishing.
The Catalans to finish top of the Super League for the first time was one thing, but a sold-out crowd roaring them to victory over Hull KR last week to secure a first appearance at Old Trafford is another. Victory in the game’s centerpiece is expected to elevate its appeal beyond its heart in the Northern Hemisphere.
“There are English rugby clubs that have been around for decades that haven’t had the success the Catalans have had,” Chan insists. “It could change the game as we know it. If we can take the league title away from what is called the heart and bring it back to Perpignan, I can’t say what that might do for the rugby league across the world.
McNamara, whose only previous Grand Final appearance was in 1999 as a Bradford Bulls player, agrees. “Wembley put us on the map. Interest has, however, reached another level across France in recent weeks. This club is only 16 years old. We have an infrastructure that is as good as any in the Super League.
“We have young players as good as any other in the Super League. Four years ago it feels like there is life in some ways, but we’ve worked so hard to get to this point. It is a historic moment for the sport, not just for the Catalan Dragons. I’m glad I didn’t ask these questions of the board four years ago, but now we have the chance to do something that could change the sport forever. It is an honor to be a part of it.