How tough times as a player shaped Steve McNamara’s success at Catalans Dragons

Alex Spink
Steve McNamara Catalans Dragons Alamy

Even now, all these years on, Steve McNamara recalls the feeling. The knot in the pit of his stomach, the sense of impending doom.

“That moment we got sat in two separate rooms,” he says, casting his mind back to the bitter end at cash-crippled Wakefield Trinity. “Yeah, I remember it well.”

He had been playing in the Super League Grand Final for Bradford a year earlier, representing England and Great Britain on the international scene. Now he was staring down the barrel.

“The players who were getting contract offers from the new business were in one room, those of us who weren’t were in another,” he says. “You have a young family, kids, a mortgage and all of that and you’re put in that situation.”

Income promised by then Wildcats‘ chief executive John Pearman had not materialised. The club’s response was to terminate the contract of all players over the age of 24.

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24 years later McNamara is to be found 1,000 miles from home, hard at work preparing Catalans to host leaders St Helens in Saturday night’s top-of-the-table clash.

He is the longest serving head coach in Super League, has won a Challenge Cup and reached two of the last three Grand Finals.

That has not happened by chance. Being successful when you are operating in a different country, different time zone, different language from the domestic competition in which you are entered, is tough.

Press the Hull man on where he developed the resilience to thrive in such an environment and those last days at Wakefield in 2000 spring to mind.

“Most people who have had an element of success have had an element of disappointment, of things not going their way,” he says. “Of having to overcome some obstacles, difficulties.

“That was certainly the case for a lot of us at Wakefield back then. I look back on it as a very unpleasant time.

“A lot of people on the street in normal life have been through what we did. For us it was something brand new. One you had to stand up to, fight your way through.”

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Those lessons he learned about life and coping with adversity have stood him in good stead, making him an ideal fit for the Dragons job.

“This is a community down here, we have to look after each other, make sure everyone is okay,” he says. “France being a foreign speaking country makes everything more complicated.

“We need help from the French people and they need help from us. This was always a job I liked the thought of but coming here was definitely a step into the unknown.

“It’s an experience like no other trying to coach in a foreign language, one that you can’t really speak. I can understand it, but fluent is not the way to describe me.

“As with any relationship you need trust. The players understand I’m here to try to help them win. At the same time I need their help and support because I’m trying to live in a foreign country.”

These are good times for Catalans but it has taken a lot of work and, that word again, resilience.

Every away game features a combined flight time of five hours. In the early days of Covid-19, when France went into lockdown earlier than the UK, Dragons had to play all their matches on the road.

Photo courtesy of Richard Long

“The biggest thing for us is consistency,” says McNamara. “We’re a team that has to travel a lot, we fly overseas that many times, yet we had the equal best away record last season.

“For a long time we were labelled inconsistent. But now we’re living our lives consistently well, training and playing consistently well, and while we do that we put ourselves in the frame.”

Ask Shaun Edwards about the job his pal has done in Perpignan, the town the Wigan man also calls home, and he is emphatic. “Fantastic,” says France’s rugby union defence coach. “The whole organisation has done a magnificent job.”

The biggest test yet of their credentials this season comes on Saturday when Paul Wellens’ pace-setters pitch up at Stade Gilbert Brutus.

Saints were too good for world club champions Wigan on Good Friday, though Catalans weren’t far behind in winning at Warrington after racing into an 18-0 lead.

Even without Matty Lees, who starts a two-game suspension, and Mark Percival, sidelined under the concussion protocols, they pose a formidable challenge.

“We know we’ll have to play as well as we have all season to get the win,” McNamara admits. “Since the 2018 Challenge Cup semi-final, when we went on to win our first final, games against Saints have been titanic tussles, real physical encounters, two good teams going at each other.

“Being where we are we don’t have a local derby but this one feels the closest given the rivalry that exists.”

At 52, McNamara’s enthusiasm remains infectious. He talks openly about the “thrill” of each week, the highs and the lows, the adrenaline and all that goes with it.

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“I’m probably as passionate, if not more, about coaching the sport than I’ve ever been and while we all know how fragile an existence coaching is in sport, it’s what I love doing.”

Under his stewardship Catalans has changed from a “great place to live and enjoy yourself where work was secondary” to a far more professional set-up with a growing French influence in the playing group.

Eight of the 17-man squad at Warrington last time out were home-grown and, McNamara insists, there on merit.

“It’s great to have French players in the team but ultimately I’m here as a coach to try and win competitions,” he explains. “You can’t just pick a team based on because it’s French and that looks good.

“But they are without doubt as professional as any players in the competition. We spend so much time travelling that we probably train a little bit less than all the other teams so have to lead better lives.

“The French boys have led the way in that. They look after themselves in a great way and are giving themselves every opportunity be the best they can be.”

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