Catalans Dragons: Nou Camp return would be welcomed after Wigan success

Nou Camp.
Catalans' game against Wigan was the first Super League match to be held at the Nou Camp

Catalans would relish the chance to take rugby league back to Barcelona's Nou Camp after their Wigan success, says Dragons head coach Steve McNamara.

Saturday's match, the first time the code has graced the stadium, attracted a record regular-season Super League crowd of 31,555.

Dragons won the historic game 33-16.

"Hopefully we can do it again, it was a big success and given more time to prepare we can make it bigger and stronger," said McNamara.

Barcelona, impressed by the passion and colours of the Challenge Cup winners at Wembley, extended the offer to host a game after Dragons had been invited to parade the trophy at half-time during the Catalan derby against Girona in September.

And McNamara was keen to stress the beacon-like status the Dragons, based in the French city of Perpignan, can have in representing the region as a whole from the southerly tip of France down into the north east of the Iberian peninsula.

"We are the Catalans Dragons, we're not the Perpignan Dragons, we represent Catalonia," McNamara said.

"Barcelona, Girona, those people have fanatical support for sport. Clearly football is the number one but they love sport in general.

"Perpignan is our home but we want to represent Catalonia as a whole region."

Skipper Casty tapping into Messi's 'energy'

Remi Casty and Lionel Messi.
Catalans captain Remi Casty (left) used the locker of Lionel Messi (right) for the Dragons' game at the Nou Camp

Despite countless internationals featuring on both sides, many of them having experienced playing at Wembley and Old Trafford, there was a genuine sense of excitement and a little awe from the players in appearing at such a cathedral of sport.

Catalans had the honour of using the home changing room, the same space in which the Blaugrana prepare for a game.

Skipper Remi Casty was the lucky recipient of Lionel Messi's locker, although the big prop forward is a very different kind of player to the Barca dynamo.

"I tried to bring Messi's energy," Casty said. "You can feel the energy from the dressing room from all those stars. I wanted to enjoy this atmosphere."

Casty, a Narbonne native who has been with Catalans for all of his career bar one season with Sydney Roosters in Australia, is aware of the significance of the trip to the Nou Camp for the Catalan people.

"I'm proud to be here winning with these fans. Not everyone could come to Wembley last season and it's like a Challenge Cup final for them," he added.

"It's two more points for the team but for them it's a great day and party now."

Seeing the bigger picture despite defeat

Wigan players at the Nou Camp
Wigan players applaud the fans following their defeat - around 4,000 Warriors supporters made the trip to Barcelona

The excitement about gracing the same turf that Messi, Luis Suarez and company regularly play on in front of such bumper crowds was shared by those on the Wigan side.

Wigan have long been pioneers of expanding rugby league's borders - 30 years ago they played Warrington in the US city of Milwaukee, they faced the Dragons at The Den, home of Millwall, in 2015, while just last season they travelled to Wollongong in Australia to play Hull FC.

It is a disruption to the usual routine, adding extra travel to an already packed workload, but Warriors boss Adrian Lam is positive about the concept.

"It would be nice if we could do this once a year, whether it be us or another Super League club," Lam said.

"There has been a good vibe around town and the support the Catalonians have put in this week has been sensational.

"We have been welcomed as a team and we appreciate being invited here. We understand what an honour it is to play in a stadium like this and we'd like to thank all the fans that came down and helped make it the biggest Super League crowd in history.

"It was a record crowd of over 31,000 today, so it's great exposure to the world of rugby league."

Dragons can be a symbol of pride for the region

Nou Camp.
Catalan people have long campaigned for independence and some grasped the chance to highlight that during the Super League game

It might come as a surprise to younger readers but Spain was once in the grip of a dictatorship, until the death of General Franco brought the regime to an end in 1975.

During that time, the Francoists clamped down on regional autonomy and expressions of regional sympathy, with Catalonians among those to suffer.

The Nou Camp's significance to Catalan people was forged during those years, as it was one of the few places where, during Barcelona games, the locals would speak Catalan and express their support.

There is still a Catalan fervour today, a push for independence and autonomy from the rest of Spain, evidenced by the displaying of political banners during the traditional 'Els Segadors' hymn, the official national anthem of Catalonia, before kick-off.

One of the challenges for the Dragons is to harness that passionate support for all things Catalan throughout the region.

While it is difficult to know how many locals were tempted through the Nou Camp gates to show their support, the message is getting through according to Catalan TV3 commentator Jordi Robirosa.

"It's really special, Barcelona is closer to 'Perpinya' {Perpignan] than Paris," Robirosa said. "We are all Catalans, and we receive them with open arms.

"We broadcast the Challenge Cup final on Catalan TV, we had a lot of people watching the game, people that don't know the rules but they see Catalan flags and fighting for the victory. The last five minutes with all the passion, we saw the audience increased a lot.

"To see a team with the name Catalans and wearing the colours of the flag. creates a great feeling for all of us. When I was a boy at school, they would fight me for speaking in Catalan, it was many years ago during the Franco dictatorship. It is very different now.

"Sport is a fantastic way to increase the feeling of Catalonian passion, this game, this match and this sport."

Fans soak in an away day with a difference

Wigan Warriors fans at the Nou Camp.
Better than a rainy February night in Hull - thousands of Wigan fans took the opportunity to enjoy the trip to Barcelona

After rain lashed the city on Friday, the sun broke out on Saturday and added to the colourfest of 'sang et or' - blood and gold - the colours of Catalonia and Wigan's cherry and white.

Las Ramblas throbbed with Wiganers, enjoying an away day with a difference - the cherry and white shirts, occasional bursts of song and general party atmosphere. Many sat at the cafes which line the famous street, sipping on beers and tucking into tapas. All a bit of a departure from a burger at say, Hull, Wakefield or Warrington.

The mood was positive, the feeling that heading for Barca could only help the game.

One couple I spoke to from Maryport in Cumbria were here instead of Anfield's Magic Weekend which kicks off on Saturday (25 May).

It might not be affordable for everyone's budget, but there is a definite appetite for rugby league events in this city from those who have sampled it.

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