French Strike Back to Overcome Super League Champs

All the talk in rugby league in the past few days has been about Les Catalans coming back late in the day to defeat current Super League champions St Helens in an absolute thriller in Perpignan.

It was Zeb Taia’s late, late show with a try almost in the last minute of the game followed by Scott Dureau’s drop goal which proved to be the last kick of the game that ensured the Catalans Dragons caused the upset on their home turf.

But this is nothing new. The Perpignan side have developed something of a habit of winning when they shouldn’t and vice-versa. This makes them very difficult to judge from the pundits’ point of view – but great fun for those of us who like to find some big value when gambling on rugby league games with betfair from time to time. In short, you just never quite know what Les Catalans are about to serve up.

Nevertheless, this victory over St Helens goes down as perhaps the biggest shock of the current Super League season. The reigning champions were vying for top spot along with the rapidly improving Wigan Warriors and current Super League leaders Leeds Rhinos – but the Frenchmen scuppered any table-topping thoughts the mighty Saints had for the time being at least.

St Helens have been the most successful UK club since the Super League era began – notching up six overall titles so far. The Merseyside outfit have a habit of coming good later in the season, of course, and may well do so again this year. In last year’s Grand Final at Old Trafford, Saints were the pre-match underdogs when facing the all-conquering Wigan Warriors, but the first minute sending off in last October’s Grand Final of Welsh Wigan prop Ben Flower helped Saints win out comfortably in the end by 14 points to six.

And it had looked as if the latest visit of the Saints to the south of France would be very much business as usual. Handy St Helens winger Adam Swift scored four tries in total for Saints as the visitors led comfortably early in the game. Saints’ 27-year-old full-back, Shannon McDonnell, who returned to the club in April to the end of the 2016 season, had also gone over.

But the Dragons roared back before the break with two tries from Benjamin Garcia and one from Taia. This saw the home side go in at the break trailing by just two points at 18-20. Additional tries from The Dragons’ Morgan Escare and Taia along with five goals from Dureau helped the home side to a thrilling overall 33-26 victory.

This marked the Saints’ fifth defeat of a patchy season so far and leaves the champions third in the table. For Les Catalans, meanwhile, it means a move up to seventh in the Super League and proves they are a double-handful as always seems to be the case.

Enigmas

To describe the Catalans Dragons as enigmatic would be to flirt with understatement. They are always unpredictable in Super League and surprise their loyal fans in both an upward and downward direction week in and week out. No one ever seems to know quite what to expect.

But one thing is certain, they are always entertaining. They also hold what is probably a unique place in sport. The Dragons are the only side from outside the north of England to have a place in Super League.

The away games for the faithful few following the likes of the Wigan Warriors, the Warrington Wolves, St Helens, Leeds Rhinos and the Bradford Bulls to Northern Catalonia each year are a trek and a half.

This part of France is almost as much Spanish as it is French and it has a unique place in international culture as a result. In a country where rugby union is generally dominant, it is a likeable oddity that this corner of France has such an affinity with the north of England through the 13-a-side version of the oval-balled game.

The Dragons in action. Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

The Catalan Dragons are based in Perpignan, the “Pyrénées-Orientales” department of France. This is a beautiful part of the world, heavily influenced by Spain in both geography and culture. Les Catalans play their home games at the relatively tiny Stade Gilbert Brutus in the city.

For the groups of travelling fans from the north of England, the away games here often mark the highlight of a long weekend away in the sun – with a few drinks before the games judging by the quality of the singing support!

Les Catalans – A Snapshot

The Catalan Dragons as a formal club was first formed in 2000 through a merger of the previous XIII Catalan and AS Saint Estève teams into the into Union Treiziste Catalane – or simply “UTC”. The team won the Lord Derby Cup in 2004 and 2005 and the 2005 French rugby league Championship. In the following year, they elected to join the Super League, and took the name “Catalans Dragons” as they did so.

The UTC club still features in the French rugby league Championship’s “Elite One” Championship – and is now mainly a feeder club for the Catalan Dragons.

Before this time, the old “XIII Catalan”, first founded in 1935, were very much the major force in French rugby league, winning 11 overall French Championships along with the same number of Lord Derby Cups.

The Lord Derby Cup is the main knockout competition in French rugby league and is the equivalent of the Challenge Cup in the UK. Saint Estève, meanwhile, first founded in 1965, also did well in winning six French rugby league Championships and four Lord Derby Cups.

But Super League beckoned for the newly-merged club as this is the pinnacle of rugby league in the northern hemisphere and the Catalans were keen to try to play at a higher, more competitive level.

UTC’s application was accepted ahead of the Toulouse Olympique and Villeneuve Leopards’ application to enter the league in time for the 2006 season.

Nevertheless, Les Catalans were not the first French rugby league club to grace the Super League. This honour went, instead, to Paris Saint-Germain, although the French capital-based club could last only two years in the league.

Their position had proved untenable as players on loan from French league clubs needed to play for their own clubs and so they would be training in the south of France before making the long journey to the French capital and/or to England for all the games.

Perpignan - home of Les Catalans. Photo: Andreas Kambanis

Photo: Andreas Kambanis

So to make sure the Dragons always had the best French rugby league players at their disposal, the country’s rugby league decided the Perpignan side could sign league players from other clubs in France without paying a transfer fee. Les Catalans were also been promised they would not be relegated from the Super League for the first three years no matter where they finished in the table. This, it was thought, would give the team time to reach the standards required of Super League. This is something they have clearly managed to do.

During their first year in the League, Les Catalans did indeed finish at the foot of the table so the guarantee proved its worth. Many players did not quite see out the long and gruelling season due to injury and the team lost its key playmaker and captain, Stacey Jones. Jones was absent for half the season due to a broken arm

Of course the idea is that the Catalans Dragons will eventually be joined by a number of other French clubs in Super League as they make progress and promote the sport more widely, although its main stronghold is the south of France still.

The Dragons got their first victory in Super League with a 38–30 win over Wigan on Saturday 11th February 2006 at the Stade Aimé Giral (their previous ground).

Then in 2007, a recruitment drive from the club’s new coach Mick Potter in France along with a host of signings from Australia in the shape of Casey McGuire, Jason Croker, Clint Greenshields, Aaron Gorrell and others, all of whom were seasoned NRL campaigners – saw the French club challenging far more strongly in Super League.

Goal-kicking hooker Gorrell was particularly impressive until he sustained a knee injury in the Dragons’ win over Leeds in February 2007 – an injury which meant he was to miss the rest of the season. The following month, the Dragons stated that the Newcastle Knights hooker Luke Quigley would cover for Gorrell for the rest of the season, but things still steadily deteriorated as more and more players picked up injuries.

Nevertheless, youngsters Vincent Duport and Dimitri Pelo were very impressive backs, and helped showcase just how much youth rugby talent there was in France at the time. This has largely been borne out since then.

The same year, Les Catalans became the first ever non-UK team to reach the final of the rugby league Challenge Cup having beaten Wigan 37–24 in the semis. This was a remarkable achievement for the French newcomers, particularly given their injury problems. It really helped announce to the UK and the world of rugby league in general that the French Dragons were truly a force to be reckoned with. Sadly, the trophy itself proved to be a bridge too far as the Dragons went down by 30 points to eight to perennial favourites St Helens.

The Dragons finished the 2007 season in a far more respectable tenth position overall and this was testament to Mick Potter’s polices, although the final place would surely have been better still had the club not been so ravaged by injuries.

The following year Les Catalans achieved their first ever play-off place, having finished third in the league – assisted hugely by their superb forwards. The Dragons convincingly beat the Warrington Wolves by 46–8 in their inaugural play-off game on 13 September at home in Perpignan. But the follow-up game against Wigan was a far tougher prospect. Wigan won 50–26 and the Catalans’ best ever season was over.

Potter left at the end of that season to go to Saints and was replaced by another Aussie, Kevin Walters.

Walters made immediate changes by bringing in another Aussie, Steve Bell, who is still at the club along with fellow Kangaroo Jason Ryles, who has since retired from the game. The Dragons also brought in Greg Bird, who now plays for the Gold Coast Titans and would have gone to Bradford but his visa was turned down by the UK’s immigration authorities.

So the Frenchmen had really cemented their place in the “UK” Super League hall of fame over their first few seasons thanks to the intervention of two Aussie coaches in particular, and through learning as they went along. This was no mean feat. Joining the likes of Wigan Warriors, Saints and Leeds Rhinos at the top of the English game was never going to be easy – and so it proved. But Les Catalans are what should hopefully be a permanent feature of Super League today – and the rugby league world is a better place for it.

Wigan Warriors fans at Wembley. Photo: Mike McSharry/Flickr

Photo: Mike McSharry/Flickr

Since that time, the Dragons have still had their ups and downs, but now seem to have found their place in the natural order of things for the time being at least. They finished eighth in 2009, but bottom of the table the following year when they were again exempt from relegation. Since then, however, their record is far better in finishing sixth in 2011, fourth the following year and seventh in each of the last two seasons. They have proved they are a real force to be reckoned with and, who knows, maybe they will be joined soon enough by a fellow French strike force in Super League?

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