On a cold, misty pitch on the outskirts of Manchester, the Catalan Dragons have been laying the foundations this week for the most significant expansion of Super League in 10 years. When the competition kicks off next weekend, it will once more have the French presence that was always intended - and which it had, through Paris St- Germain, in its first two seasons.
The challenge for the club, based at Perpignan in the heart of treiziste territory, is to succeed where Paris failed. A concession, bitterly opposed by some English clubs, means they cannot be relegated for three years; credibility demands that they should not need that lifeline.
"I'm not going to start predicting where we're going to finish," says their chief exec-utive, Grant Mayer, "but we want to be able to say that we are in Super League through our own efforts." The adventure begins next Saturday, with a plum home fixture against Wigan, but the preparations have been going on for two years.
Union Treiziste Catalane - the product of a merger by XIII Catalan and St Estève - have built up for the day when they take on élite opposition across the Channel on a weekly basis. Little has been left to chance. While English clubs have been in Spain or Portugal for warm-weather training, the Dragons have done the reverse, coming to the north of England to get used to the logistics they will have to wrestle with every fortnight.
Their captain, the brilliant New Zealand scrum-half Stacey Jones, has seen it all before with the Auckland (later New Zealand) Warriors, travelling to Australia every other week. "I found the hardest thing was the travelling and we're going to have the same thing here," he says. "We're just going to have to deal with it. You lose a day's training, but so do teams when they come to us. We have to target teams at home and make it a bit of a fortress."
That "fortress" is one of their problems. Their own ground will not be ready until 2007, so they will play at Narbonne, over the Spanish border at Figueres, and at Perpignan's municipal stadium, which is primarily used by the city's rugby union club.
It will not be an easy relationship. The entente cordiale between the two codes does not extend to France and the Dragons' assistant coach, Paul Donkin, has noticed signs of hostility. "They're very nervous of us, and so they should be," he says. "They can throw anything at us. They're the ones who are scared of us."
Those who want the venture to fail will have watched events before Christmas with interest. The club insist their English coach, Steve Deakin, was not sacked, but "walked away" due to an incompatibility with the players. An announcement on his successor is expected this week. Their preparation has been split three ways, between Donkin, the former Leeds forward Matt Adamson and the ex-Great Britain coach David Waite.
The new man will be Australian, but that does not mean the Catalans will follow the example of Paris, who became a travelling band of Aussie journeymen. Their squad of 25 includes 17 French-born players and, given the chance to sign a proven Super League forward in Danny Ward, they declined, refusing to compromise the Gallic flavour. "The thing that was learnt from the Paris experience is that it has to be a French club," says Waite.
The mix is leavened with the know-how and quality of Jones and the Australian back-rower Ian Hindmarsh, but the only Frenchman with Super League experience is the former Warrington and Wigan prop Jérôme Guisset. "I'm going to try to pass on what I know to the French players," says Guisset. "It's a very long season - over eight months, playing week after week. That's what they have to get used to."
One domestic player, the second-rower Djamel Fakir, has shone for UTC and France against British opposition. "Zsa-Zsa is a very big prospect, and it will be good for him to show what he's worth against top-class teams," Guisset says. "There's always been the raw talent in France. Now we've got the oppor- tunity to play at a better level."
Donkin, who was assistant coach for four years at Auckland, sees many parallels with New Zealand. Implanting an élite club triggered an awakening that culminated in the Kiwis becoming world champions last autumn.
"The similarities are unbelievable, when you look at the raw talent in this room - and we've not scratched the surface yet," he says. "Perpignan's not the new Paris, but France can be the new New Zealand."
The Pacemakers: Four to make a Super impact
LEON PRYCE (St Helens): The GB international's move from Bradford is the most significant transfer of the winter. Pryce (above) has uprooted in search of a regular role and Saints have given him the No 6 shirt. The manner in which he fills it will go a long way towards defining their season.
IAFETA PALEA'AESINA (Wigan): A bit of a handful, as well as a bit of a mouthful, Palea'aesina was a fringe figure in New Zealand's Tri-Nations squad and has been a substitute at club level. Wigan have bigger plans for him. Their young pack got pushed around last season and he has to make sure that doesn't happen again..
LEE SMITH (Leeds): Leeds have lost two wingers, but do not appear too bothered as this 19-year-old is earmarked for the left flank. Full of pace and invention, but his defence will be tested.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN (Warrington): Has the biggest boots in the game to fill, replacing Andrew Johns at scrum-half. More realistically, he is the natural successor to Nat Wood, and his pace can add an extra dimension to a club eager to build on last season.Reuse content