ANYONE who witnessed Catalans Dragons’ shambolic performance at York City Knights in April would have firmly stated it more likely the troubled French club be relegated this year than ever reach Wembley.
That Sunday afternoon at Bootham Crescent, the Super League side resembled a chaotic rabble as, for long periods, they struggled to deal with the League 1 part-timers.
With a creaking defence, badly disorganised attack and some woeful ball control, it was even more alarming to see – on more than one occasion – rattled Catalans players arguing between themselves.
With that in mind, despite rallying enough to safely negotiate their way into the last 16, you still sensed Les Dracs – bottom with just two wins from their opening 11 games – could be doomed when it came to top-flight survival.
By that token, then, you also feared for Steve McNamara’s future as head coach.
Yet, stood on the touchline post-match in those unglamourous surroundings, the former England coach, while admitting their inadequacies, insisted his side would turn things around.
Fast forward four months, and McNamara has proven he is a man of his word.
They won 11 of their next 15 games –losing just three along the way – to utterly transform their fortunes and save themselves from a second successive Qualifiers by actually reaching the top-eight.
And now, in direct contrast to the dreaded Million Pound Game they had to endure last year, they are preparing for tomorrow’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final against Warrington Wolves seeking to become the first non-English side to win the famous trophy in its 122 year history.
Much of the praise must go to McNamara, the amiable 46-year-old who has had a rich and varied coaching career but is still awaiting his first major trophy.
He did remind me that once it was my personnel and it was my systems in place, it would be my balls on the line then, as he put it. We had a laugh and I agreed completely because that’s how it should be.Catalans Dragons head coach Steve McNamara
The Yorkshireman, who has worked tirelessly and diligently wherever he has worked, would certainly deserve to break that duck tomorrow.
His first taste of a head coach role came at Bradford Bulls in 2006, just when the then world club champions were – through no fault of his – about to start their infamous descent.
Certainly, it wasn’t always a comfortable time for rookie McNamara, who had been promoted from assistant when Brian Noble left for Wigan Warriors.
Indeed, the club eventually parted company with him in July 2010 after a particularly bad sequence of runs.
Ironically, though, he had already signed up to be the new England head coach on a full-time basis at the end of that season – his removal at Odsal just brought his appointment forward.
With the national side, Hull-born McNamara did instigate a number of significant changes which were welcomed by players and, of course, they came close to the 2013 World Cup final before that last-ditch semi-final defeat to New Zealand at Wembley.
However, again, there was no tangible success, not until his last game in charge when they beat New Zealand over a three-Test series in 2015. The RFL decided they did not want to renew McNamara’s contract, instead, taking on arguably the sport’s finest-ever coach Wayne Bennett.
Instead, McNamrara headed to the NRL to become an assistant coach at, first, Sydney Roosters and then New Zealand Warriors.
Some people will say this is where McNamara works best; out on the training field, working closely with players rather than operating in the top job.
However, clearly he still had ambitions to prove his credentials at Super League level and that is what drew him to the struggling Catalans last June.
Crucially, they won that Million Pound Game against Leigh Centurions and, importantly, during that difficult spell earlier this year, McNamara was able to persuade charismatic Dragons owner Bernard Guasch that he could see the job through.
Asked if he had any fears about his position, he said: “None whatsoever. Bernard was understanding. He fully understood the issues and the problems that we had and how we were trying to implement change. But he did remind me that once all those changes had been made and it was my personnel and it was my systems in place, it would be my balls on the line then, as he put it.
“We had a laugh and I agreed completely because that’s how it should be.”
With more players at the World Cup last winter than any other side, Catalans always feared a slow start.
But NRL captures Josh Drinkwater and Kenny Edwards proved astute mid-season signings.
And anyone witnessing that stunning semi-final win over St Helens will see just how unrecognisable Catalans now are from that side in York.
Now they – and McNamara are just 80 minutes away from making history.