From relegation scare to semi-finalists: The rise of Catalans Dragons

Steve McNamara Catalans Dragons head coach
Steve McNamara, the former England coach who took over the French club in the summer of 2017, knows it was a watershed moment in the autumn of that year when his side overturned a 6-4 interval deficit to beat Leigh in the Million Pound Game and maintain their place in the top flight. The following August, the Catalans became the first overseas team to win the Challenge Cup and created more history in 2021 by securing their first League Leaders’ Shield.Now, victory over surprise semi-finalists Hull KR in front of a sell-out crowd at Stade Gilbert Brutus will give passionate owner Bernard Guasch the chance to lead his team out at Old Trafford against the winners of Friday’s tie between St Helens and Leeds.

“To lift the Challenge Cup was a historic moment but I believe Old Trafford would be more significant,” said Guasch.

“It would be one of the best days of my life. It would be one of the most important moments in rugby league.”

The Dragons fell at the penultimate stage of the 2020 play-offs, losing at St Helens. But this time have home advantage and no one can say they do not deserve that after being forced to play the bulk of their matches in England earlier in the year due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earned the right

McNamara said: “It’s reward for everybody involved with the club. We’ve earned the right to be at home in this game.

“When we got drawn at home in the Challenge Cup and had to play away, we didn’t particularly agree with it but we understood the circumstances.

“Now, to get a game of this magnitude is great. It will be a special occasion, there’s going to be a tremendous atmosphere.”

Catalans Dragons’ Tom Davies (left) and Sam Tomkins celebrate after the Betfred Super League match at the John Smith’s Stadium, Huddersfield

The Catalans Dragons’ Challenge Cup success led directly to them taking a game to the Nou Camp, where they drew a Super League record crowd of 31,555. McNamara believes a trip to Old Trafford could be another pivotal moment for the game.

“What this run has done is create a huge amount of interest in non-rugby league people,” he said.

“The thing about the area of Catalan is, even if they are not rugby league fans, people will support the club because of the patriotism and support for the Catalan region. That will be there in force on Thursday night.”

Tough opponents

Standing in their way will be a Hull KR side coached by McNamara’s long-time friend and mentor Tony Smith, who masterminded an extraordinary 19-0 away win over Warrington in last week’s eliminators.

McNamara said: “They’re a good team and they deserve to be where they are.

“It’s not by accident, they’ve worked extremely hard and to go to Warrington and win 19-0 was a tremendous result.

“We’ve had three fantastic tussles against them so far this season and we’re expecting another one on Thursday.”

Smith says his team will be encouraged by the previous meetings between the sides this season, even though the Dragons won them all.

“They’re a good team but we’ve competed with them,” Smith said. “We’d like to compete again and, if we can turn it our way, that would be great.

“They’re a terrific team and fully deserve to come first this year.

“They’ve had a week off to freshen up so we know it’s a tough task but at the same time we’re looking forward to it.”