Rugby League Week #19 – Are French coming of age?

Will Salford Red Devils get £700,000 from St Helens for Theo Fages?

You never know. They might. Then again one day we might also get a Newcastle v Newcastle World Club Challenge, another Great Britain Ashes win or a smile out of Paul Anderson … so I wouldn’t hold your breath.

You’ve got to admire Dr Koukash’s pluck. Fresh from seeing his marquee rule nodded through and chucking free tickets around like confetti – for a game against French opposition, ironically – he knows a potential superstar when he sees one, values him accordingly and is standing firm.

Which does however beg the thought: why not let Saints have Theo for nothing? You never know. On the free ticket principle, they might be back to sign a few more, mightn’t they?

The Catalans too are a bit busy on the transfer front. Only this week, we’ve had international three-quarter Mathias Pala signing for Leigh and second-rower-cum centre Ben Garcia announcing a move to Penrith Panthers.

He’ll be joined in the NRL by fellow Dragon Elliot Whitehead, who’s off to Canberra, on the back of Remi Casty’s two-year stint with Sydney Roosters.

While that’s not exactly a flood, it is at least now a semi-established path as the Aussie game, in general, adopts a more expansive recruitment policy.

But all of this movement or – in Fages’s case wannabe movement – did get me thinking about how far Catalan have come since their admission to Super League in 2006. Has that inaugural decade been a success or not?

Well to answer that, I suppose, first you’d have to work out what you were expecting from the enterprise in the first place.

Certainly you would have wanted the club that rose from a merger of long-standing French set-ups XIII Catalan and Saint Estève to be competitive.

And so, by and large, they have been – exoneration for the insistence that a club whose feeder side Union Treiziste Catalane (UTC) still plays in the French Championship should ‘build’ behind the scenes for a couple of seasons before taking the step up with a ‘no-relegation for three years’ promise.

That’s forward planning for you. And a lesson learned from the disastrous and short-lived example of Paris St Germain in Super League’s first two seasons.

Back then, French players weren’t exactly unheard of in English rugby league, but they were widely felt to be not quite good enough to play consistently well at the very highest level. A weak link in the defensive line perhaps.

Scrum-half Patrick Entat, who played with Paris in their first season, was perhaps one exception. He had enjoyed spells earlier in the 1990s at Hull and Leeds who, by the middle of that decade, couldn’t win at Sudoku, had anyone back then known what Sudoku was.

 Also signed for that initial PSG squad were Super League’s first-ever try scorer Freddie Banquet from Wakefield, Regis Pastre-Courtine and Laurent Luchesse who had experience at Batley and Huddersfield respectively, and Fabien Devecchi who would later play for Widnes.

The team they beat on Super League’s opening night, Sheffield Eagles, were also no strangers to French talent, having Jean-Marc Garcia in their squad and snapping up Frédéric Teixido three years later, having earlier welcomed the versatile David Fraisse, who also had spells at Bradford and Workington.

Since when, Frenchmen have become almost as common in Super League as squares in the air: Olivier Elima, Julien Rinaldi, Jérôme Guisset (NRL pioneer with Canberra in 1999), Gael Tallec and Sylvain Houles to name but a handful.

The nation also gave us the greatest Super League player that never was: Yacine Dekkiche, a wing-centre who after the 2000 World Cup was signed by a newly ‘merged’ and struggling Huddersfield-Sheffield more used to cart than race horses. As a consequence he was lost to union after just 14 games. Bah.

A lesson there, perhaps, for young Theo and his advisors that transfers not only need to be to the right club, but to be right in terms of timing also.

But back in the here and now, and you’d have hoped that a club draped in sang et or would bring colour and vibrancy to Super League, wouldn’t you? And that they most certainly have done.

Perpignan has become a not-to-be-missed annual jaunt for many a fan, which for someone who heard travelling supporters moan on Challenge Cup trips there pre-2006, has been particularly pleasing.

And if the Dracs fans don’t make the return trip in anything like the same numbers, well, given the expense of at least fourteen overseas flights a year, that is at least understandable. In any case, the credit of having the Catalans in the comp far outweighs the debit of not having an away end to barrack.

The big hope though was undoubtedly that the Dragons would boost France’s Test side, the better to deliver England credible competition.

And the guiding example always held up was that of Auckland – later New Zealand – Warriors.

Get a French side competing in Super League, the theory went, and let time do the rest. You can certainly see why.

Superficially, France and New Zealand have a lot in common. There’s a tradition of semi-professional domestic competition of many years’ standing; both are over-shadowed by professional comps in neighbouring nations; home grown talent is plentiful if a bit raw around the edges, supposedly prone to flamboyance with a reluctance to put the hard yards in first; the lure of commercial investment potential via broadcasting and sponsorships… etc etc.

So put them in the top-flight and let them experience its greater week-in, week-out intensity and discipline … et voila!

Fast-forward to 2015, and you’d have to say that, for the Kiwis, that plan has reached fruition. Officially number one Test-playing nation in the world, no less.

The NRL is full of top-class New Zealand-qualified athletes and not only at the Warriors; there is an abundance at all the other clubs too.

Yet if we look at Catalans Dragons, can we say that the original hopes of international improvement have come anywhere close to realisation?

In terms of results, no. The days when Les Chanticleers could go to Australia in 1978 and beat the green and golds twice (the last nation to do so before – guess who – New Zealand in the 2005 Tri-Nations) are as far off as ever.

On the field, the last three World Cups were uniformly disappointing and in 2015 the French are by no means certain of winning tournaments featuring Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It was the Scots who qualified for the 2016 Four Nations, after all, and it would be a brave pundit who tipped anything other than a comfortable England victory at Leigh on October 24.

So in the international arena, Catalans are a cast iron failure?

Well, it’s not that simple. There are a couple of mitigating factors.

A very obvious one is that in comparing Super League with the NRL, we aren’t matching like with like. Producing players who can take on the might of Wakefield, Salford and, say, Huddersfield every week without flinching is not going to prepare you for facing Australia and the Kiwis quite like running out against Brisbane, Melbourne and Canterbury Bulldogs would.

Then again, you’d think it should be adequate preparation for playing England, wouldn’t you? Although England’s coaches do have eleven English pools to fish from and a few down under, where France basically have one.

The second factor, of course, is time.

The Warriors have been around twice as long as the Dragons and in a far tougher competition. A comparison of the two stories so far, bears analysis.

Formed in 2005, Auckland Warriors became the only side in the then-ARL based outside Australia, initially finishing 10th out of 20. Since when, much of their time has been spent either halfway up or bumping along at the bottom of the ladder, while always capable of beating anyone on their day.

A name-change to NZ Warriors in 2001 preceded a first appearance in the finals – or play-offs – and the following year the minor premiership title was won some eight years after the club’s birth. They reached the Grand Final too, beaten by Adrian Morley’s Roosters, and went back again as losers to Manly in 2011.

In doing all this, they produced and fielded player after player who would go on to grace teams worldwide, including one member of that 2002 side, the hugely influential Stacey Jones.

And Jones it was who, in 2007, led Catalans Dragons up the Wembley steps to collect the losing medals after his side became the first overseas club to reach the Challenge Cup final – against St Helens. The following year, Catalans reached the play-offs for the first time, finishing third in their third season.

That contrasts well with New Zealand Warriors’ third year. In 1997, they came seventh of out ten teams during the Super League split (while beating Bradford, St Helens and Warrington in the World Club Championship naturally) and a year later, upon reunification, finished 15th from 20.

Until 2005, the Kiwi national side was as frustrating as the French are now, though individually way more gifted. Over-emphasis on attack in any area of the field and at whatever stage of the game frequently cost New Zealand dear before, under Brian McClennan, they began to control those instincts.

If we discount the contributions of Steve Deakin and David Waite, the Dragons have gone through head coaches at a rate of one every couple of years, beginning with Mick Potter in 2007 and finishing with serial ref critic Laurent Frayssinous, via Kevin Walters (2009-10) and Trent Robinson (2011-2012).

Likewise, the Warriors have gone through coaches at the rate of one every two years – a grand total of ten in a couple of decades.

So what if anything can we read from all of this?

Only that the notion of success and failure is not only fluid in professional sport, but also relative to particular circumstance. Results are the ultimate currency, yes. But the all-round contribution provided too has long-term value, a more philosophical outlook that requires patience and persistence.

But really, when all is said and done, who nowadays sees individual French players in Super League as anything other than the equals of their British or very often antipodean counterparts? There’s nothing wrong with Theo Fages’s defence as far as I can see and he plays in the sport’s most creative position, revelling in the responsibility.

In short, the French are no longer the weakest link. Super League – and hopefully soon the NRL – merely looks like their natural home.

And that sure looks like progress to me.

 

 

Tone’s Tips: Victories for Leeds, Saints, Hull, Huddersfield, Hull KR and Salford. London announce plan to play at least one game a year in Wigan.

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