For almost five years, few teams have captivated British rugby league quite like St Helens. From the brilliance – on the field, at least – of Ben Barba’s short-lived spell with the club, to the dominance they have engineered in the past two seasons, it has not been difficult as a neutral to feel some level of affinity with the Saints.
But this Saturday the back-to-back Super League champions are cast very much in the role of villains. For the third time in five years a team will make their Grand Final debut when Catalans take to the field at Old Trafford. Castleford failed in 2017 against Leeds Rhinos, while Salford succumbed to the might of the Saints two years ago. This weekend, the stakes feel much higher for a sport in desperate need of something new.
Old Trafford will not be as busy as it usually is this Saturday, though the bump from last year’s final being played behind closed doors should give this weekend’s crowd a shot in the arm. But anyone with rugby league’s bigger picture in mind should be focused on the impact a Catalans Dragons victory could have on this sport, rather thanhow many fans from one of the game’s traditional heartlands clubs are at Old Trafford.
The Catalans coach, Steve McNamara, has been a believer in this project since the beginning. He inherited a club heading for relegation four years ago, something which would have been perhaps fatal for rugby league’s chances of ever breaking out of its traditional northern roots. The Challenge Cup success of 2018 was a seminal moment, but becoming the first club from outside of the M62 corridor, let alone the country, to win Super League would be monumental.
“I think it’s the biggest [game of my career],” McNamara said. “That’s been shown in the build-up with the national interest from L’Equipe and Canal+, which shows the interest that is growing in France.” The enormity of what Catalans have achieved is reflected by the fact that the opposition coach is wholly aware of how they have taken rugby league in the northern hemisphere to the brink of a huge opportunity, which could be intensified if Toulouse secure promotion to Super League on Sunday night too.
“I think it’s absolutely outstanding what the Catalans have done,” St Helens coach Kristian Woolf, who also coaches Tonga, said. “It’s really good for the game to have someone from France in the Grand Final. I’m involved with international rugby league and it adds to the occasion. But we’ve got our own reasons for wanting to win, we need to worry about ourselves and our own motives.”
Saturday’s final pits the two sides who have undoubtedly set the standard for all of 2021 against one another. Catalans were deserved league leaders, while the second-placed Saints have been with the Dragons almost every step of the way. As Woolf indicates, they have sufficient motivations of their own, not least the opportunity to become only the second side in the modern era to win Super League for three years in a row.
Splitting the two on the field is difficult and, on the face of it, we could have one of the most intensely contested Grand Finals in history. Both coaches were keen to deflect the heat onto each other this week. “There is no pressure on us,” McNamara said. “The pressure was last week. Saints are clearly the favourites.”
That was met with a wry grin from Woolf, who replied: “They’re the league leaders and there was the Magic Weekend [when Catalans defeated St Helens] so you’d definitely put them as favourites. We can really enjoy this week. You get a lot of pressure when you haven’t done something for a long time or haven’t done something before. In 2019 there was pressure on us because we hadn’t won a Grand Final for a few years.
“There is no pressure on the group whatsoever this year because of what the group has achieved over the last two years, both in the Super League and the Challenge Cup.”
Irrespective of which team start as favourites, there is no doubting who the neutrals will back. Catalans have purchased 5,000 flags to hand out to neutral supporters, and they have put five charter flights on in the hope 2,000 Catalans will be present.
A litany of failures with expansion have been and gone: Paris Saint-Germain burst onto the scene in 1996, but disappeared within two seasons. London has never fulfilled its potential. Toronto Wolfpack imploded midway through last year. The 14 years Catalans have been in Super League may not be a long time, but in expansion terms in this sport, it is a lifetime. After disappointing year upon year prior to McNamara’s arrival, the game as we know it could change with a league title on Saturday evening.
“We can create a new era for rugby league in France,” the Catalans owner, Bernard Guasch, who has funded this project since its inception, said on Thursday. “We hope that French rugby league will be smart enough to work together; the French Federation, Toulouse Olympique and Catalans Dragons.” Guasch’s close friend, the Barcelona chairman, Joan Laporta, has sent the Dragons players a good luck message and has left the door ajar for them to play at the Camp Nou once again.
We are used to declaring that history will be made under the lights at Old Trafford every year. If it is Catalans who take the trophy back to Perpignan on Saturday, for once, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that is exactly what is happening before our eyes.