So after three years of having a French presence in Super League, I think it’s fair to say that the Catalan experiment has been a success. Numerous and passionate crowds, a decent stadium, the development of French talent, and a trip to both the Challenge Cup final and the playoffs. Now the Dragons have to deal with something else entirely: raised expectations.
Having spent their first two seasons around the bottom of the Super League table, Catalan emerged as a force to be reckoned with last season as they swept their way to third place in the table and to a crushing first round playoff win over Warrington. This made it all the more surprising when they crashed their way out of the playoffs with a resounding defeat by Wigan, thus ending their hopes of a first Grand Final. The Dragons were obviously not used to such expectations, and it kind of showed. Added to that an abysmal World Cup campaign that affected much of the Dragons’ squad, and you have a slight cloud of uncertainty hanging over Catalonia as the season begins.
With this in mind, it’s good to see such a positive looking recruitment campaign by the Dragons as they appear to have gone for quality over quantity. Jason Ryles is a star of a prop, and even if he hasn’t been at his best over the last few seasons he should still add some much needed steel to the Dragons’ pack. Steve Bell is a proven player at NRL and Origin level, and in another era would probably have a Test cap by now. Add to that an emerging talent from the French Elite League in Frederic Vaccari and former Brisbane Bronco halfback Shane Perry, and you have a nifty set of new players coming in.
With all this in mind, you would have to guess that the Dragons’ aim this season should be at minimum entry into the playoffs. I would guess that they will be targeting a home playoff in the first round by finishing in the top four, and given the improvements they have made in the last few seasons a Grand Final appearance isn’t a completely absurd idea. The Dragons have proved themselves worthy of Super League; now they have to prove themselves to be members of its elite, and the best way to do that would be by winning a trophy this year.
Pros: They’re coming off their best season yet, and now know that they’re definitely a playoff-calibre side. They’re full of exciting French talent, and they play in front of large passionate crowds. They seem to have a higher quality of import generally, which is definitely true this year as they bring in State of Origin and Test veterans to the club. Oh, and the food in the south of France is much better than in the north of England… much better.
Cons: Well, last season did end on an inappropriately sour note as the Dragons crashed out of the playoffs with a spanking from Wigan. Catalan now need to prove that they have the mental capacity to deal with the extra pressure of being contenders this season. They also have to do it without several of their recognisable names, as the likes of Justin Murphy and Alex Chan have brought their stay in Catalonia to an end.
Coach: Kevin Walters is well known as a former Kangaroo player, but this is his first 1st grade Head Coaching job. He enjoyed relative success as coach of the Ipswich Jets in the Queensland Cup, leading them to their first Minor Premiership and an eventual Grand Final spot.
Captain: Casey McGuire will lead the Dragons by example, having been a key player in their recent rise.
Key Man: Thomas Bosc seemed to be a real star for the Dragons last season, and he now needs to show he can be an elite stand-off on a consistent basis. Of course, now people know he he’s an outstanding talent, so they will probably be gameplanning accordingly. Bosc will need to step up to the challenge to keep the Catalans’ attacking machine running smoothly.
Young ‘un: Frederic Vaccari will be hoping to step up from the French Elite League and make an impact on Super League this season. With France on the lookout for some attacking threat out wide in preparation for their admittance to the Four Nations this year, a big season for Vaccari could catapault him back into international contention.
Wild Card: Considering the fanfare he received upon the Catalans’ entry into Super League, Jamal Fakir has been relatively quiet. Of course, a lot of this is to do with two serious knee injuries he has sustained whilst playing in Super League. If he’s fully fit, look for Fakir to add some more Gallic brute force to the Dragons’ pack.
Gains: Steven Bell, Shane Perry, Jason Ryles, Frédéric Vaccari, Mathias Pala, Michael Tribillac, Romain Mencarini, William Barthaw.
Bell will be a boon for the Dragons, being one of the more underrated centres in the NRL. Jason Ryles is a former State of Origin and Test player, and if he steps up to the challenge he could be one of the star props in Super League.
Losses: John Wilson, Aaron Gorrell, Mathieu Griffi, Alex Chan, Younes Khattabi, Justin Murphy
There’s a lot of players the Dragons will be sad to see leave. Chan was a lynchpin in their pack, and Wilson and Murphy snuck in under the radar to become high-level performers, with Murphy leaving as the Dragons’ top Super League try-scorer.