It was billed as a pre-season friendly, but when the Catalans Dragons face Toulouse Olympique XIII, there is rarely anything friendly about it once the captains have shaken hands in the centre of the field.
Both coaches took the opportunity to name large squads for the game with the hope of sharing the workload and getting a good look at all their charges in a game situation. Catalans’ Steve McNamara named a thirteen-man bench while Toulouse coach Sylvian Houles had a squad of twenty-three players, including many names familiar to followers of Super League such as Harrison Hansen, Dominic Peyroux and Mitch Garbutt.
The Dragons had the best of the early exchanges, but the Toulouse defence held firm, the referees whistle helping to relieve the pressure as the Dragons were punished for multiple indiscretions early on. There was no doubting the Championship sides commitment.
Indeed, it was Toulouse who opened the scoring when Mark Kheirallah collected a delightful inside switch kick by Johnathan Ford, timing his run perfectly, to score by the left upright. The full back converted his own try for a 6-0 lead with ten minutes on the clock.
On twelve Josh Drinkwater collected his own grubber kick, after it ricocheted off a Toulouse defender’s legs, to scramble over the line from two metres out and ground. James Maloney added the conversion to level the scores.
As the game hit twenty minutes there was very little to choose between the two sides as Toulouse kept their heads in the midst of Dragons indiscipline.
On twenty-two Toulouse proved that their opening try was no flash in the pan as Kheirallah was again on hand to score a typical poacher try, taking a neat inside pass from Dom Peyroux to score under the sticks. Again, he added the extras, Olympique XIII now 12-6 ahead.
Four minutes later Toulouse were in again as poor Dragons defence allowed Mitch Garbutt to muscle his way close and stretch for the line. Kheirallah was on target for the third time, the Dragons now knew that they were in a game.
Paul Marcon was dealt a pre-season blow as he was helped, limping, from the field on thirty-two minutes and on the next set the Dragons got back into the game as Fouad Yaha took a neat pass from Samisoni Langi and cut through the Toulouse defence to score from twenty-metres out. Maloney was unable to add the conversion, the Dragons still eight points adrift.
A minute before the break there was a mix-up in the Dragons defence the ball was kept alive, finding Kheirallah to walk in for his hat-trick and the fourth Toulouse try of the afternoon, dotting down under the uprights. He added the goal himself as the half-time hooter sounded on a 24-10 lead.
Two minutes after the restart Yaha found himself on an overlap down the left-hand side and pushed away the cover tackler to get the ball on the ground by the corner flag. A superb touchline conversion from Maloney again reduced the margin to eight points.
The Dragons were looking far more dangerous at the start of the second half and on forty-five Yaha completed his hat-trick after finding himself in plenty of space down the left-hand side to step out of a weak tackle and ground. Maloney added another two from the same spot as a few minutes earlier, the Dragons now just two adrift.
The Dragons looked certain to score again on their next attack, but a great last-ditch Toulouse defence kept them out. But it was brief respite as the Dragons grabbed their third try in ten minutes with Matt Whitley taking a between the legs pass to round the defence and touch down behind the sticks. Maloney’s goal made it 28-24, the Dragons in the lead for the first time in the game as Toulouse had no answer to the onslaught.
There was a stroke of luck about the next Catalans try as Mike McMeeken collected a ricocheted Drinkwater grubber against his shoulder to walk in and ground. Maloney was on target again for 34-24 to the home side. With twenty minutes left the Dragons had turned a fourteen-point deficit into a ten point lead.
On seventy a scamper from dummy half and a moment of magic from Lambert Belmas and a no look pass found Goudemand in space to walk three metres for a simple try. Maloney added the conversion and the Dragons were out of sight at 40-24 having scored thirty unanswered second half points.
There was some late consolation for Toulouse on seventy-seven when Hugo Pezet was on hand wide right to dot down in the corner. Kheirallah was unable to add the extra two, the deficit down to a very creditable twelve points at the final hooter.
Look out Championship, Toulouse have made some astute signings as they set their sights on promotion, and a Super League place in 2022. Steve McNamara will be happy with the second half performance and brush off the disappointing first as a ‘blowing away of the collective cobwebs’. All-in-all it was a terrific game between two committed sides.
Catalans Dragons: Tomkins S, Yaha (3T), Lango, Whitley (T), Franco, Drinkwater (T), Maloney (6G), Bousquet, Da Costa, Seguier, Jullien, McMeeken (T), Garcia. Subs: Baitieri, Belmas, Brochon, Chan, Cozza, Dezaria, Flovie, Goudemand (T), Kasiano, Le Cam, Mourgue, Rouge, Zafra.
Toulouse Olympique XIII Squad: Kheirallah (3T, 4G), Vaivai, Jussaume, Marcon, Ford, Reynolds, Hansen, Dixon, Peyroux, Marion, Pelissier, Peuch, Bretherton, Paulo, Garbutt (T), Shaumkel, Evans, Sangare, Bouscayrol, Fourquet, Garcia, Pallares, Pezet (T).