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Dragons confident of play-off upset

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George Riley George Riley | 11:26 UK time, Friday, 23 September 2011

Catalan Dragons winger Damien Blanch oozed confidence, class and charisma before his team embarked upon another lengthy journey he hopes can end at Old Trafford.

There were no signs of nerves ahead of facing defending Super League champions Wigan in their own backyard, no sign of frustration at an unnecessarily messy journey to arrive there, and no sign of a player and team just in the play-offs to make up the numbers.

The Warriors know that they have a job on to revive their own title defence. The Dragons believe they can produce their best performance of the season to knock the champions out.

Despite running in 100 points in their last two games, the free-flowing French side remain huge underdogs, even given Wigan's own post-Challenge Cup final lull.


Catalan Dragons beat Wigan Warriors 47-28 earlier this season. PHOTO: GETTY

Fed up of being asked if his side are weary after their Wembley win, Warriors coach Michael Maguire opted to ban his players from talking to the media this week as they retuned their efforts on responding to last week's setback by St Helens.

Far be it from me to tell a champion coach how to focus his champion team, but speaking as a journalist working to promote the sport at a time when it needs publicity and profile more than ever before, it was not a hugely helpful decision to prevent his star names from selling the spectacle.

I had no plans to speak to any Warriors players but newspaper colleagues did. Maguire's only concern is, of course, Wigan and I have little doubt he will get his desired response.

The bigger picture, though, is that the sport needs its star players, of whom Wigan boast several, to sell the game. And if every coach did this then rugby league column inches would decline from slim to non-existent.

Blanch, meanwhile, could have chatted all day, which will unfortunately be reflected in my phone bill. Having just finished their penultimate Perpignan training session, the Dragons couldn't care less what Wigan are up to, according to Blanch.

"Maybe they are a bit jittery after losing top spot in the table and then their first play-off match too," he says. "I've never met Maguire so I don't know what he's playing at. He'll just be doing whatever he thinks is best for his players.

"He feels they need to do it after a few losses since Wembley, he thinks they need it mentally to use these tactics. We won't read anything into that, they can do as they like. We'll just watch videos of them on the pitch and work out how to beat them again."

Working out how to beat them is something Catalan coach Trent Robinson has managed better than most this season.

Twice the Dragons have wounded Wigan, with Blanch scoring one of eight Catalan tries in a 47-28 away win in April.

Australian-born Ireland international Blanch says: "We know they are world-class all over the field, so if any of our guys has an off-day it could be enough for us to lose. With what happened last week I reckon they will be even more brutal.

"I'm confident we can turn them over though. The fact that we have beaten them this year does at least mean that we don't have to worry about focusing on them too much. We know if we focus on executing our own game-plan then that is enough to beat them."

The 28-year-old has been revitalised by his move from Wakefield to Perpignan, and tells me he is playing the best rugby league of his life. That, he believes, is not just down to a bit more sunshine, but also one of the best coaches he has worked with.

"Trent Robinson is great at getting us up for the big games but he is so relaxed it keeps us focused and calm and not overawed by any success we have," says Blanch.

"I've really enjoyed being on the end of a team that throws the ball about which is why I've got my best ever try-scoring record this year. The sunshine's been great too - me, the family and the boys love it in France - but we obviously get extra travel that comes with it. People say teams come and lose in Perpignan because they have to travel, but they forget we do it every second week going to England."

That travel issue has just become even more disruptive for the Dragons too. Airline BMI has ceased its Manchester to Perpignan operation, meaning the team will embark upon an even lengthier journey.

They will leave a day earlier than scheduled, drive from Perpignan to Carcassonne, fly into East Midlands, and then drive up to Manchester, before training at Sale on Saturday and heading to Wigan for the game.

It is a long route but one they remain convinced could yet end at Old Trafford. Perhaps we should be asking Robinson rather than Maguire if his players are weary!

"It takes its toll but we try and have fun and play some cards so we don't think about the travel too much," says Blanch.

Since their Super League birth the Dragons have established themselves firmly as dangerous outsiders. But how do you shake off that tag and instead assume the mantle of genuine trophy contenders?

"It's a big question mate," says Blanch. "But we're pretty chilled about it."

"Robbo assembled a team at the start of the season with a mixture of youth and experience, French and Aussies. A lot of the guys here signed two-year deals so we see this team as a two-year project.

"We are not even a full one year into that yet. We have done really well and have already achieved our goal to reach the semis, but that doesn't mean we are done, especially now Old Trafford is in sight."


  • Comment number 1.

    George, yet another cheap shot at Maguire's decision to avoid the media, which undoubtedly the hacks take would have been as follows
    Media: "So Sam, here we are again, do or die in the playoffs as it was after last seasons defeat against Leeds"
    ST:" Yeah, but we've prepared well, things just haven't gone our way in the last couple of weeks"
    Media:" Yes I guess you are all shattered still after Wembley, took everything out of you".... etc etc etc

    Why not focus on the obvious failings of the current playoff system, low crowds, one sided results.....

    Wigan are undoubtedly in a slump but looking at the defeats.
    Warrington away - Warrington desperate for top spot after being knocked out of CC.
    Saints at home in playoffs - Saints looking for their first win this season over Wigan. Again smarting from CC defeat AND GF defeat last year.
    Sad to think that this is deemed as a crisis, not gone over the stats from this season but how many sides have lost to Saints at home and Warrington away?
    Michael Maguire is paid to make Wigan successful. In his almost 2 seasons Wigan have won both major prizes in the game. Only Warrington have a chance of the same success in the same time period. Yes we need to promote the game, but he's a coach, not someone who will offer soundbites like the Millwards,Nobles,McRaes of this world who seem to look to their future careers in broadcasting.

    Wigans media blackout worked last season against Leeds at Headingley so if Madge wants to try it again, then let him.
    Most of the Warriors team are on twitter so just get your snippets there instead!

  • Comment number 2.

    Well personally I'm glad Maguire has imposed a media ban this week, as the team need to regain focus after their Challenge Cup exploits. And you said yourself George, that Madge is probably fed up with being asked the same question over and over again.

    Also, you really ought to know better than pinning the lack of Rugby League column inches on Maguire. Yes, Wigan have some of the brighest (British) talents around, but you really ought to appreciate and respect their desire for privacy on the eve of such a vital game. Perhaps you journos such focus your attentions on the residents of the HJ - surely there's plenty to write about there, after the Wolves have dominated the last few weeks.

    Back to Wigan, and this has already been a good season for cherry & whites. let's hope they can go on to make it a brilliant season.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sorry must have missed your pieces on Warrington's coach not taking part in the club call, or for that matter after years Grand final a Saints player throwing a hissy fit. Or the current England captain not talking to the media after the CC final
    Funny what do all these stories have in common

  • Comment number 4.

    personally I blame the WCC back in February, that one game extra has obviously taken its toll.

    C'mon Riley, do some proper journalism & stop trotting out the usual lines. Or is getting up at the crack of dawn these days making you lazy?

  • Comment number 5.


    enjoyed the comments from Damien Blanch a much underrated player in my opinion , but on the other side why keep on about the Maguire issue- im sure he's not the only coach who's ever put a media blackout on

    If You have a problem with a lack of profile of the sport- could i politely ask and really im not looking for a row why BBC 5 live sports extra which i enjoy btw covered Baseball or was it american football last week instead of the Leeds v Hull game , i appreciate Wigan v Saints probably clashed with football but i dont get american sport coming first

    keep the blog going mate always a good read

  • Comment number 6.

    You can't blame George for mentioning the low Pie profile, however the article does give excellent focus on Catalans - and oh how we've needed them with the Welsh demise.

    My beef is with the BBC, rubbish general coverage apart from the few (esp. Clare.... and george), the build up to the CCF was so so poor - a significant factor in why the sport's profile is so low. Why isn't the SL nationwide or at least shown in the NE ????

    However the product has never been better...lets move the CC to someone who REALLY wants us.

    George why not do a blog on the expanding the RL world...interesting backdrop against the rah rah WC ?

  • Comment number 7.

    Good article George but I agree with PieNtries and others; don't blame Wigan for their attitude failing to sell the sport - I enjoy the SportsExtra coverage, it is great quality but - apart from your sterling efforts - the BBC does very little to promote RL (or any major field sports now for that matter). What on earth is Auntie doing broadcasting baseball? Tonight am listening via laptop to BBC Radio Leeds for coverage of Hudds v Leeds, enough said.

    Also, I think the SL play-offs would be more dramatic if simplified to straight knock out rounds; would raise the stakes and I think draw more fans in for each match.

    The Catalans story is a real positive. The team has been outstanding this year, especially given the travelling stacks the odds against them during the season. Lets hope the RFL have a sensible long-term plan to help more French clubs compete at a higher level. How about bottom 6 SL clubs taking on French sides in a knock-out tournament as they will not be involved in SL play-offs?

    Off topic I know but I see Crusaders application to compete in the Championship has been rejected. Remind me, is this decision made by the same panel of experts that agreed to catapult Crusaders to SL in the first place?

    Finally, I have watched some of the RU World Cup on that other channel. Listening to the commentators you would think Sonny Bill Williams invented the off-load! Enjoyed the drama of Ireland v Australia but compared to the Wigan v Saints match, no contest - RL wins hands down.


  • Comment number 8.

    Wigan fans are flapping their arms around like Sam Tomkins after someone has dared to tackle him! The Pies protesteth too much methinks. I'm with the journos on this one. The fight to get any coverage of RL in the national media is tough enough as things stand without Wigan's attitude. One thing that is interesting about the blackout is that IMO it is an example of a weakness in Maguire's thinking. He did it last year and it had an effect. It may have the same effect this year. But what he perhaps fails to take into consideration, a point also reflected in his post match comments about Wigan getting back to what the team does best, is the opposition. Wigan were not poor on Sunday or in their match against Warrington; they were defeated by coaches who knew how to undermine what Maguire thinks Wigan does best and teams who could execute that game plan. It will be interesting to see if the Dragons can do the same for a third time this season on Sunday. Speaking as a Saints fan, I certainly hope so!

    Meanwhile, I enjoyed your article George and it was good to read so much about the Dragons through your conversation with Blanch. They certainly have returned to their potential under their present coach and I'm glad they have found someone who is interested in encouraging the French culture within the team. I like coaches who are interested in the community and not just silverware (although obviously everyone wants their team to win some).

    On the point about the playoffs generally, I would agree with the idea of having the playoffs as a knock out competition from the outset. I think that would generate more interest and make teams work harder. I think there is little incentive for teams to work hard throughout the season given the lopsided stacking of silverware towards the back end of the season. But looking at the level of competitiveness within the games so far and the sparse number of spectators overall watching the games, things are not right as they stand at present. However, I'm sure the RFL will continue to try and justify changing nothing!

  • Comment number 9.

    In response to Saint DI...
    Firstly it's "protest too much".. "protesteth" is an often misused quote.

    Secondly.. Wigan's attitude is about winning trophies, something you Saints fans seem to have forgotten about in recent years. Even if Wigan did give access to their players this week, they would get one or two column inches hidden in the corner of the page next to the classifieds. It's not like any of Georges "journo" mates would secure back page on the Red tops or broadsheets with articles about Sam or Joel..

    Thirdly.."Wigan were not poor on Sunday or in their match against Warrington; they were defeated by coaches who knew how to undermine what Maguire thinks Wigan does best and teams who could execute that game plan."

    Ahem... Warringtons coach, I can agree with having defeated Wigan 2 out of 3 times this season, Catalans coach, again 2 wins from 2 this season. As for Saints, I think you are giving Royce too much credit... Played 5 Won 1 Drawn 1 Lost 3.... hardly prolific....
    Nice to see you wanting a team that won just over half their games this season (55%) to get closer to glory than a team that won almost 3/4's of their games this season (74%)... Shows everything that's wrong with British RL today, accepting and rewarding mediocrity.

    Personally the semi finals would be much better served having Wigan Warrington Saints and Hudds, you know the most consistent teams this year, instead of having 1st, 3rd, 5th and 6th place in the semis... The game we have should promote itself, but having witnessed 3 lop sided play off games last week after all the hype of Sky saying this is where the action really begins, makes us look kind of stupid really. Outsiders looking in must wonder at the quality of the game when the best of the best are getting 40-50 points put past them!
    Anyway, hopefully Wigan will come good against the Dragons and we will probably see you at Widnes next week, you know seeing as the Warrington coach has REFUSED to have anything to do with clubcall, but of course as he's not at the DW Stadium, then that doesn't merit any column inches does it?

  • Comment number 10.

    I reckon Wigan will still be feeling the bruises after last week's encounter but the Cats must be 'fresh from the fight.' I can't believe I just said that and Bonnie Tyler will be furious but hey when you've got great taste in music like I have, you've got to flaunt it.

    But Wigan must also be feeling the pressure. I'd love to see a changing of the guard even if it means sacrificing a Wigan / Sts semi final beat 'em up. If the Cats do go through, will Warrington call them out? Hmm, not so sure. Mastering the unpredictable is never easy especially in the knockout stages. Just look at what Sheffield have done so far in the Championship. But I reckon we're shaping up for a Saint - Wire final. That'd make for a pretty good day out.

  • Comment number 11.


    Firstly, pedanticsm is often a sign of desperation. (I made that one up)

    Secondly, Wigan have won how many trophies in the last 16 years? I hardly think Wigan fans are in a position to comment on the attitude of Saints towards winning trophies.

    Thirdly, I remember a season during Anderson's reign at Saints when we did the double over Leeds and beat them in the playoffs. Leeds beat us at Old Trafford that same year. We came close to beating you at the DW on Good Friday by playing to the same gameplan which beat you on Sunday. The differences between the two games were obvious: we lost two players to injury in the first half on Good Friday and by Sunday our young players had had a season's worth of experience. In short, we were able to play to the gameplan on Sunday. Our coach has known what to do all along. He helped to coach against Melbourne, remember; he knew of Maguire before we did.

    Incidentally, the League Leaders Shield is the award for consistency and Warrington won that (deservedly so). In playoff football, how many matches a team won during the season is irrelevant. We're into a new competition now. It's all about who plays best on the day.

    Having watched the match between Leeds and Hudds you may want to withdraw your comment about Hudds? Hudds have lost their form and so don't deserve to go any further in the playoff comp. Like I said, league results are irrelevant now. Leeds will at least give the remaining teams a game. Hudds would not have done, regardless of where they finished in the league.


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