Peter Smith: Homage to Catalans is still a big draw for Leeds Rhinos fans

IF IT hadn't been for the rugby, it would have been a perfect weekend.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 28th May 2018, 5:50 am
Updated Monday, 28th May 2018, 1:51 pm
Catalans Dragons' Benjamin Garcia celebrates scoring against Leeds.
Catalans Dragons' Benjamin Garcia celebrates scoring against Leeds.

On a hot day in the south of France, Leeds Rhinos produced the latest in a growing list of sub-standard performances and, despite a spirited fightback for 20 minutes in the second half, were well-beaten by Catalans Dragons, 33-20.

In normal circumstances, a sixth defeat in the last 10 Super League games would leave travelling fans feeling more than a little fromaged-off, but game day in Perpignan is like no other.

In holiday mood, hundreds of Rhinos supporters spent Saturday drinking in the sunshine, wandering around the picturesque old town and tasting the local cuisine.

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For them, the main purpose of the visit became something of a sideshow. However, it was a significant result for the French side who seem to finally be getting their act together.

Under former Bradford Bulls and England coach Steve McNamara, they only avoided relegation through a win at Leigh Centurions in last year’s Million Pound Match and made a poor start this term, but are now off the bottom and just one point behind eighth-placed Huddersfield Giants, who they visit for a Challenge Cup quarter-final on Thursday.

Formed through a merger of local clubs, Catalans have got a lot wrong, particularly in recruitment. Some big names, for example legendary New Zealand half-back Stacey Jones, have played in the sang et or (blood and gold) colours, but few have lived up to their reputation.

Catalans have relied heavily on the NRL for players, often bringing in ‘bad boys’ who are not eligible for a UK visa and there has been little if any benefit to the French national team, who remain a model of under-achievement. But Perpignan is a rugby a treize city, despite hostility from local union side USAP, who have had more success in recent years. Bruno Onteniente, who covers Catalans home and away for the L’Independant newspaper, believes the club are on the up. He says: “It is better now, since the match against Hull FC at home.

Leeds Rhinos fans support their team in big numbers in Perpignan.

“They have won four of the last five matches. That is better for the team and it is better for Steve Mac because at the moment he has got no big injuries.

“They have been performing at home for the moment. They had to win last week [against Salford] at the Magic Weekend] to expect to have Super-8s. Last year in the middle-eights was very, very difficult.”

The Super-8s are crucial to Catalans’ stability as a club, according to Onteniente. He adds: “It was a difficult season last year in the middle-eights. There was no money through attendances or in the shop so it is important this season to finish in the Super-8s.”

Catalans do it every other week, but for English clubs travel is a factor. After more than a decade, there are still no direct scheduled flights from Yorkshire to Perpignan. But, Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington believes having a club in the south of France adds value to the competition.

“Catalans have become the second-biggest business in Super League and credit to them,” he points out. “They have invigorated rugby league throughout the Perpignan region and the matchday atmosphere and ambiance makes it a terrific place to come.

“They have struggled on the pitch in recent years and they’d admit their recruitment hasn’t been as good as they’d like it to be, but certainly they bring a vibrancy to the competition. They add quite a bit, but there are some areas that are disappointing.

“They’ve not brought broadcast value to Super League and we’ve not seen any improvement in the French national team, which was one of the expectations of Catalans’ entry into Super League.

“It is a mixed bag in some ways, but when you come here you get the feeling this is a Super League event.”