Less than a year ago, Leeds were crowned Super League champions and Catalans survived relegation by the skin of their teeth in the Million Pound Game.
Their fortunes could hardly have been more contrasting at the Challenge Cup semi-final double header in Bolton as the Dragons powered past St Helens with a remarkable display, while Leeds were crushed by Warrington to add to their woes ahead of a tricky campaign in The Qualifiers.
The Frenchmen’s turnaround under the stewardship of Steve McNamara has been one of the stories of the season and they will relish the underdogs tag they’ll take in to their Wembley date against a Wolves side appearing in their fifth final in the past decade.
In the trigger happy modern world of sacking sports coaches, Catalans do deserve some credit for sticking with McNamara, who had been written off by a lot of people following a dismal start to his reign, dating back to last season.
Catalans won just two of McNamara’s first 16 games in charge against Super League opposition and looked destined for a second successive season in The Qualifiers, but have now lost just two of their last 13 games.
The job in France is much bigger than just guaranteeing success of the Dragons franchise, it is about the development of French rugby league too – something that McNamara’s previous experience as England coach was what attracted to him to the job.
Despite the slow start and the end of last season, McNamara appeared calm and clear on his plan at the start of the year, knowing that having so many players late to pre-season due to the World Cup would result in a bad start. It probably went worse than he expected, but he now has the Dragons on the right track with the club having ignored calls to cut him.
As for Leeds, clearly they have quite the rebuilding job to do. It’s the second time in three years in The Qualifiers but unlike last year, it’s hard to see how they can get in a position to compete for the Super League title in 2019.
Talk of possible relegation is nonsense though, there’s no chance they’ll go down, but Kevin Sinfield now knows what a job he has on his hands.
As for the occasion in Bolton, it was a good event and a decent potential legacy for new RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer, who championed it.
There were of course issues with traffic, parking and food – not helped by an ongoing dispute between the football club and its caterers – but generally it was a good occasion and one with clear potential that could be attractive to bidding cities, ala Magic Weekend.
The only issue with these multiple game events is that you inevitably end up with scores of empty seats when fans leave after their side’s game. This was evidenced yesterday when the St Helens fans departed en masse following their defeat, and who could blame them.
It means that your showpiece occasions are being broadcast and documented around the world and in the media in front of a load of empty seats.
There’s also the challenge that you would want to get it arranged and marketed early, but you aren’t sure what teams are going to make it. Had Wigan, for instance, qualified rather than Catalans, would the stadium have been big enough?
But at the same time, what if you choose a larger stadium and then Toronto and Catalans make the semi-final.
It’s a tough conundrum for the RFL – ultimately, the capacity has to be at least the size of the four participating teams’ season ticket holder base.
Rimmer will have been pleased that his idea came to fruition and was a success, while there was a sense of assured professionalism in the media area brought by one of his first appointments of staff, which will be announced publicly soon no doubt.
A final word for Warrington and in particular Steve Price, who has started their new era in perfect fashion by reaching a Wembley final at the first attempt.
Although their marquee signing in Tyrone Roberts hasn’t done as well as they would have liked, the Wolves have built steadily this season following a shaky start, and Price deserves credit for stamping his identity on the team, who executed a gameplan superbly to rout the Rhinos.