As we get set for what seems like the inevitable addition of Toronto and Toulouse to Super League it is tempting to wonder what would have happened had Catalans Dragons not overcome Leigh Centurions in last season’s Million Pound Game. Relegation for the French side would have been a metaphorical knee in the nuts for the expansionists who insist that our game needs to have a presence in France, Canada, USA and South West Nigeria in order to validate itself. As it was the Dragons survived and, under coach Steve McNamara, look well placed to make a better fist of the Super League campaign in 2018.
The Dragons have made two late but potentially important signings in the off season. Fullback David Mead has joined from Brisbane Broncos after an impressive World Cup with Papua New Guinea, while the capture of Michael McIlorum from Wigan looks a real coup. That is if the 30-year-old hooker can stay fit. He missed all of 2016 with a broken ankle suffered in that year’s World Club Series match with Brisbane, and made 20 appearances in what was another stop-start season in 2017 as the Warriors toiled and hilariously failed to make the semi-finals. Yet when fit and on form there is little doubt that McIlorum will add quality to the Dragons pack, particularly in defence where his aggression and high work rate can often inspire others.
Also arriving from Wigan is utility back Lewis Tierney on a permanent deal after a loan spell last season, while Antoni Maria is back from Leigh Centurions. Benjamin Jullien also returns to France after starting out at Avignon and taking in spells at North Wales Crusaders, Rochdale and latterly Warrington.
Of those departing perhaps the biggest loss is Richie Myler who has taken up the challenge of replacing Danny McGuire at Leeds Rhinos. Another halfback has retired in the form of veteran Thomas Bosc, while powerful three-quarter Krisnan Inu has joined Widnes Vikings. In the pack the biggest loss is undoubtedly back rower Justin Horo who after 45 appearances in two seasons with the Dragons following spells in the NRL with Parramatta and Manly will start 2018 with Wakefield Trinity. Myler’s exit places further pressure on former Saints halfback Luke Walsh to try and guide the Dragons team around the field, though Tongan World Cup squad member Samisoni Langi has arrived from Leigh Centurions also. Langi was unused during the Tongans’ spectacular run to the semi-finals and managed just nine games for the Centurions last term, but if he can establish himself as a regular halfback partner for Walsh the Dragons should have something to build on in the creative department. Nineteen year-old half Lucas Albert featured less last term but is a good young prospect who should benefit from the experience of Walsh and who is a more than capable replacement should injuries or suspensions bite.
Already on board with the Dragons and going around again in 2018 the key player might be Greg Bird. The man capped 17 times by Australia made just seven appearances for the Dragons in 2017 after joining the club from Gold Coast Titans, but in those games he showed enough to indicate that he can raise the performance of the whole side. Never a stranger to controversy, Bird is nevertheless a player of proven quality and his ability to stay fit will be a massive key to whether the Dragons can improve on last season’s disappointing showing. Also huge for the Dragons will be pack stars like Remi Casty, Paul Aiton, Sam Moa and Louis Anderson, while Benjamin Garcia’s return from Penrith Panthers in the NRL is also a much needed boost. Garcia scored 10 tries in 48 games in his first stint with the Dragons between 2013-15 and after failing to make an impression with the Panthers at first grade level will be determined to prove his quality in Super League once more.
Ever since the Dragons joined Super League back in 2006 the main stumbling block to their success has been their away form. They just haven’t travelled well, and in 2017 that continued when they won just three times on the road in the regular season, and none after beating Huddersfield Giants at the John Smith’s Stadium in Round 9 in April. McNamara has already spoken about the need to address that and a different approach to the extra travelling involved for the Dragons looks likely this time around.
It’s a big season for the Dragons, not least because they are likely to be joined by another couple of non-UK outfits when the clubs and the RFL finally thrash out an agreement about what the competition will look like in 2019 and beyond. All-French clashes with Toulouse look a particularly tasty prospect while any match-ups with Toronto would have a truly international flavour whatever reservations the doubters like this writer may have. Though the likely restructure might well save them, another appearance in the Million Pound Game is not what the Catalans faithful will be looking for, and not what McNamara needs as he looks to rebuild his coaching reputation in this country following his uninspiring period in charge of the England team.