Dragons confident of play-off upset
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."