Steve McNamara confirmed over the weekend that Matt Whitley is unlikely to be a Catalans player in 2024, with the back-rower looking to continue his Super League career in England.
And the England Knights representative is set to be joining Paul Wellens’ St Helens, as originally reported by Examiner Live.
The 27-year-old has been a consistently strong performer in the top division in recent years, with 2023 likely to mark the end of his five-year spell in France.
To date, Whitley has made 89 appearances for Catalans since his move from Widnes, scoring 31 tries in the process including a brace in the recent Magic Weekend 46-22 victory over Wigan at St James’ Park.
Ex-England boss McNamara cited family reasons for a potential return to England for the Billinge-born back-rower, who has received plenty of interest following his desire to return home.
Having signed a contract extension in 2022, Whitley had an option for 2024 in France, but it was confirmed in the Rugby Football League’s off-contract list that he had not accepted those terms for the next campaign.
But how will he fit in at St Helens?
Steve McNamara admits that Matt Whitley is unlikely to be a Catalans player next year.https://t.co/ASuhu22DmG
— Josh McAllister (@JoshMcSport) June 3, 2023
St Helens are already boasted with talented back-rowers for next season, with Joe Batchelor, Curtis Sironen and Sione Mata’utia currently on their books.
England international Batchelor, 28, committed his future to the club with a new three-year deal just last year.
Ex-Manly back-rower Sironen has an option for a third year with the Saints for 2024, which will be triggered if the 29-year-old plays a certain amount of games – having made eight Super League appearances so far this year.
Meanwhile, Wellens admitted that he is confident of retaining 26-year-old Mata’utia through to next year, despite reported interest for an NRL return.
The Saints boss said following his side’s Magic Weekend victory over Huddersfield: “Obviously Sione needs to sort out in his own head whether it is the right decision.
“There are numerous factors he needs to think about but it is just really important that we, as a team, allow Sione that time.
“He is a really important, brilliant player and a really respected member of the group and because he is all of those things, we need to be patient and give him that time (to make that decision).”
So adding Whitley would mean the reigning champions would have four top-quality players fighting it out for only two spots, with an extra potential place on the bench.
Mata’utia however was utilised in the middle from the interchange bench during the side’s 48-6 triumph at St James’ Park over the Giants.
Wellens praised his overseas player’s versatility during the win, admitting he sees flexibility within his role on the field.
This could potentially see a permanent switch and then the likelihood of having three back-rowers available to a match day 17 in Whitley, Batchelor and Sironen.
That move could become increasingly likely if 2023 is to be the last in Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s career, with the 37-year-old off-contract at the end of the season.
The London-born veteran is currently enjoying his 13th season at the Totally Wicked Stadium, and entered Super League’s top 10 appearance makers earlier this season with more than 417 to date.
If the ex-dual international with England and Ireland is to hang up the boots at the end of the year, that will allow Mata’utia to slot straight into the front-row and Whitley to back-row, resulting in less recruitment for the four-peat champions.
Matt Whitley departure leaves massive shoes to fill in Perpignan
The departure from Catalans would leave a massive void for McNamara to fill for 2024, with Whitley currently donning the number 11 shirt for the club.
France international Paul Seguier holds the other starting back-rower top, with Manu Ma’u in the ranks following his move from Hull ahead of 2023.
Catalans are currently utilising six out of their seven available quota spots in 2023 in Adam Keighran, Tyrone May, Mitchell Pearce, Siua Taukeiaho, Matt Ikuvalu and Manu Ma’u, while Chris Satae is set to join the club next season on a two-year deal.
Half-back Pearce has been heavily linked with an NRL return to finish his career, while Keighran and Ikuvalu also remain off contract beyond the current campaign.
It could see McNamara delve into the overseas market, with France becoming a popular destination for NRL imports.
Or the space could see homegrown talent promoted to a starting spot with the likes of Mickael Goudemand, Jordan Dezaria and Leo Laurent currently within the squad and able to play at back-row.
There are more than 30 back-rowers in the NRL competition still without a contract for 2024, and if Pearce is set to leave the club, it could open up room for an overseas recruit, while a third marquee spot will be introduced for 2024 in Super League.
On the contrast, there are few back-rowers available in Super League for 2024, with names such as Chris McQueen and Willie Isa yet to confirm their playing future, while the likes of James Bentley and Ben Currie currently seeking new deals for 2024.
Whitley would be an outstanding addition to most, if not all, Super League squads for next season, with McNamara expressing his disappointment at potentially losing his starting back-rower.
McNamara told Love Rugby League: “We’d love to keep Matt, but ultimately he’s got a family to think about as well and he’s dedicated his life to living in France for the last few years.
“He’s got some choices to make but we’re fully aware of the situation with Matt and we understand it. But unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be a Catalans player next year.
“He’s an outstanding bloke. He’s been on that England fringe and goes about his work and business.”
To help build a strong future for both Catalans and France, McNamara should be looking to promote from within, with ageing forwards joining the club a somewhat unhealthy trend in Perpignan with currently Ma’u (34), Satae (30) and Taukeiaho (31) contracted.
It should leave a desire to look at the youngsters waiting in the wings, while St Helens fans will get to see another strong addition in 2024 in Whitley.