Exclusive: The secrets behind Steve McNamara’s reign as Super League’s longest-serving head coach

Ben Olawumi
Catalans Dragons badge, Steve McNamara x3

The evolution of Catalans Dragons boss Steve McNamara, Super League's longest-serving head coach - Alamy

Monday, June 19, 2017. Brexit negotiations begin in Brussels. Nathan Redmond scores for England’s under-21’s against Slovakia at the European Championships in Poland. French outfit Catalans Dragons are embroiled in a battle at the bottom of Super League and appoint ex-England boss Steve McNamara.

Fast forward just over six-and-a-half years… the UK is no longer in the European Union, a soon-to-be 30-year-old Redmond is sat on the sidelines at Turf Moor as an injured Burnley player, and McNamara is still at the helm in the south of France preparing for his seventh full season in charge.

The 2024 campaign kicks off with the visit of Warrington Wolves to Perpignan this weekend, the same side whom McNamara the Dragons to a first-ever piece of silverware in the British game against, lifting the Challenge Cup under the Wembley arch after beating the Wire in 2018.

He’s also led the French side to a first Super League Leaders’ Shield – earning that accolade in 2021 after winning 19 of their 23 games – and four consecutive top four finishes.

Oh, and Catalans have also been involved in two of the last three Grand Finals, only pipped to the post by a St Helens side that won four on the spin and a Wigan Warriors team who look capable of following on in the same vein.

The 52-year-old is by far and away the longest-serving head coach in Super League, with his nearest rival in that aspect being Huddersfield Giants boss Ian Watson, who was appointed over three years after McNamara.

Success at the Stade Gilbert Brutus has been clear for all to see over the last few years, even without that illusive Grand Final triumph. McNamara’s desire to strive for more remains stronger than ever, which leaves the burning question – why?

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Catalans Dragons exclusive: The secrets behind Steve McNamara’s reign as Super League’s longest-serving head coach

Love Rugby League caught up with the Hull native earlier this month at the Super League season launch day in Manchester, when he and the Dragons’ representatives had flown over the day before and were flying back that night, a journey he and they have become very accustomed to.

On his connection to the club, McNamara told us: “I’ve often said this about players. Certain players suit certain clubs, certain clubs suit certain players, and that goes for coaches as well.

“I’ve got an affinity with the region now, with the club, with the people, the players and the owners, and it works both ways.

“We’ve worked extremely hard to get ourselves in the position that we’re in, and that’s the biggest thing. People have been prepared to work hard.

Catalans Dragons, Steve McNamara lift Challenge Cup in 2018
Catalans Dragons boss Steve McNamara lifts the Challenge Cup with his players in 2018 – Alamy

“The club suits me, and I suit the club, and that’s probably why it’s lasted so long. Clearly you’ve got to get some results, and people have got to see that there’s been an improvement.

“We’ve done enough for the owner to decide that he’s wanted me to be his coach for this period of time.”

And away from the pitch, the former Bradford Bulls head coach admits the French way of life suits him too, revealing one of his passions away from the game: “I like bike riding now!

“I can’t run as much as I’d like to do with a few injuries and different bits and pieces I’ve got, but I like to get on my bike, get out onto the mountains and explore.

“It’s the best thing that I’ve done, honestly. You don’t get too much time in-between games and sessions as a coach, but that’s what I enjoy doing whenever I get the chance, it’s great.”

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Taking it back to the start: McNamara ‘didn’t want to pass up’ on Dragons opportunity when Catalans came calling

When he walked through the doors at the Stade Gilbert Brutus back in 2017, McNamara inherited a Dragons side struggling near the foot of the Super League table, with former boss Laurent Frayssinous relieved of his duties the month prior.

McNamara meanwhile was working in the NRL in 2017 when the opportunity arose having not had his contract as England head coach renewed the year prior.

After a test series against New Zealand towards the end of 2015, the RFL opted to bring an end to the stalwart’s term in charge of the national team.

Accordingly, in McNamara’s own words, ‘the timing wasn’t quite right’ for him to take the Catalans job, but it wasn’t something he was going to miss out on.

Catalans Dragons fans
A small smattering of Catalans Dragons fans celebrate their win away against Leigh Centurions in the 2017 Million Pound Game – Alamy

There were no guarantees his gamble would pay off either, and in the five regular season games he took charge of in 2017, the only side the Dragons beat were Leigh, then-Centurions, on home soil.

Into the Super 8s they went trying to retain their spot in the top flight, and it took a 26-10 win at Leigh against the odds in the Million Pound game that year to earn that. The Leythers were relegated back to the Championship, while for Catalans, the rest – as they say – is history.

McNamara said: “I was working out in New Zealand at the time with the New Zealand Warriors, and I’d been at the Sydney Roosters for three years before that working as an assistant coach, so I wanted a fresh challenge in the NRL.

“I was actually really happy with the New Zealand Warriors, but when the Catalans job came up, it was one I’d always looked at in the past and thought, ‘I’d quite fancy that, that looks a good job’.

“The timing wasn’t quite right, because I’d only been out in New Zealand for about eight months, but I knew this was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up at that stage.

“I would normally do a lot of due diligence, a lot of research on the job, but I probably didn’t want to know the answers at the time because the work that needed doing at Catalans at the time was clear and obvious, the club wasn’t anywhere near where it’s at now, obviously not.

“I wanted to take the job on, take the challenge on, and thankfully I did. Thankfully we survived that Million Pound Game, otherwise it could’ve been a whole different story.”

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McNamara explains potential he saw in the Dragons seven years ago

Close to 7,000 were in attendance at the Leigh Sports Village for the Million Pound Game, and a minute percentage of that were there wanting the French outfit to upset the odds.

But McNamara says he knew even before taking charge that the platform was there to pull off the win and then ultimately start to progress, which is exactly what they have done – both on and off the field.

Catalans Dragons' Paul Aiton & Louis Anderson tackle Warrington Wolves' Mike Cooper
June 2018: Catalans Dragons duo Paul Aiton (left) and Louis Anderson (right) tackle Warrington Wolves’ Mike Cooper during Steve McNamara’s first game in charge – Alamy

The 52-year-old continued: “The biggest thing for me was that I thought they’d actually been really well coached. I thought the players were all educated.

Trent Robinson had been there and Laurent Frayssinous had coached them well technically, but there were just so many areas which we weren’t professional enough in at the time – the way we lived our lives, the way our diet was and the intensity of the training.

“They’re just some of the things at the time I thought we could go in there and help to really improve, so when you start putting those things in place, you see some rapid improvement.

“That rapid improvement soon becomes the normal, and then the normal is that players start to come through our system and we start to get some consistency.

“There’s a number of things there that we had to put in place, and thankfully we’ve had a group of players that have really responded to what we’ve asked them to do.”

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‘There isn’t just Hull and Hull doesn’t finish at the Bulb region’: Catalans boss details how French players have become ‘like his children’

When McNamara signed on the dotted line, he became the first-ever English head coach at the Stade Gilbert Brutus. During the club’s time in the British game to that point, it had primarily been chiefs from Down Under – Kevin Walters, David Waite, Robinson, Mick Potter – they’d relied on, as well as his immediate predecessor Frayssinous (French).

That brings its own challenges, but McNamara hasn’t been a stranger to the big, wide world for a very long time, and leans on his experience as a teenager in that aspect, as he told us.

Steve McNamara
February 2017: Then-New Zealand Warriors assistant coach Steve McNamara speaks to the press ahead of an NRL 9s game – Alamy

“When I was 19 and I was a Hull FC player, back in winter rugby, our season would finish in May. The NRL was still going then, and I’d been coached by Brian Smith before he’d left to go to St George (Illawarra Dragons), and when I was 19, he offered me the chance to go there for a three-month period.

“As a 19-year-old kid, I went living in Australia for three months on my own, and it opened my eyes that there’s a different world out there.

“There isn’t just Hull, and Hull doesn’t finish at the Bulb region. It opened my eyes and allowed me to be exposed to the world at a young age, which I think has helped me to make some of those decisions later on in my career to go and coach in Sydney, New Zealand and in the south of France where I am now.”

But regardless of how much passion McNamara had for the project he was taking on board in Perpignan, he arrived in France unable to speak much more French than ‘Bonjour, je m’appelle Steve’.

Of course, almost seven years on, he’s now like a local and an adopted member of the Catalan community, but he believes his own struggles in the early days have only strengthened his bond with his squad, in particular those who have been around from the start.

Fouad Yaha scored a try in the Million Pound game against Leigh, and he along with club captain Ben Garcia, Julian Bousquet & Alrix Da Costa all remain with the club having appeared in McNamara’s first game in charge – a Round 19 defeat at Warrington.

McNamara continued: “They mean the world to me, and there’s a couple of reasons for that.  When I came to the job, I was there clearly to help try and improve them – to make them better players and a better team. But I couldn’t communicate, speak, all of that. I couldn’t live in the country without the French people around me, I needed their support as well.

“I was there to help them, but I desperately needed them to help me. I think in any relationship like that, if you get that strong understanding that we’re there to help each other, it just creates a really, really strong connection.

“Some of those players have been with me from the start – Julian Bousquet, Ben Garcia, Arthur Romano, Paul Seguier, Alrix Da Costa – and they become like your children because you spend that much time with them.

“Of course you’re the coach, you’re in charge, you’re making decisions and everything else that goes with it, but at the same time it’s about that connection.

Steve McNamara, Ben Garcia
Catalans Dragons head coach Steve McNamara shares a joke with captain Ben Garcia ahead of the 2023 Super League Grand Final – Alamy

“People use that word a lot, ‘connection’, but I just feel it’s so, so strong right now between the group we’ve got and hopefully that will continue for a long period of time.”

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McNamara talks Catalans ‘end goal’ as he approaches seven-year landmark with desire to ‘get stronger and stronger’

Six-and-a-half years on from his appointment, there’s no doubting the vast improvement made in Perpignan, largely thanks to McNamara’s tutelage.

They’ve gone from very genuine Super League relegation candidates, to a club that’s been beaten in two Grand Finals by margins of two and eight points respectively, conceding just one try against Wigan last October in the latest showpiece instalment.

McNamara doesn’t believe that winning a Grand Final, if and when it does happen, would bring him to the end of his time in charge, but makes the obvious admission that first Old Trafford trophy lift is the feeling he and his side are chasing.

The Dragons chief will reach the 300-mark in terms of games as a head coach by the midway point of the upcoming season, that on the back of a playing career which also saw him make over 300 appearances.

A true stalwart of our game, he told us: “Well, a goal – if you like – is that (Grand Final win), but just because you win a Grand Final, would that be the end goal?

“I think the end goal would be to win a Grand Final, but more so to leave the club in a really strong position where it’s just going to get stronger and stronger.

“Every other club’s getting stronger and stronger at the same time, but it’s that ability to leave a place in a really healthy position with the stability for it to improve on top of what you’ve left.

Steve McNamara
Catalans Dragons head coach Steve McNamara at the 2023 Super League launch – Alamy

“Hopefully that’s what would happen regardless of whether – in my time – we’d won one Grand Final, two Grand Finals, however many.

“That would be the icing on the cake for me, but we have to start again, right from scratch. You have to do that come the beginning of every pre-season, you can’t just come into it expecting to take off from where you’d finished the year before.”

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