Anthony Joshua puts his world titles on the line against Oleksandr Usyk live on Sky Sports Box Office later this month, but a hotly anticipated heavyweight clash of a different kind takes place in Newcastle on Saturday evening.
In one corner, the reigning, back-to-back Super League champions St Helens. In the other, the up-and-coming French challengers Catalans Dragons, who sit atop the Super League standings with three rounds of the regular season remaining.
The showdown between first and second in the competition on day one of Magic Weekend at St James’ Park marks the third time the sides will have met this year and although Saints triumphed 34-12 against an under-strength Catalans side at Totally Wicked Stadium just under a month ago, they know it will be different this time around as they bid to slay the Dragons.
St Helens vs Catalans Dragons
September 4, 2021, 5:15pm
“They have been probably the best team throughout the year and are rightly sitting on top,” St Helens prop Alex Walmsley said. “They are deservedly there and they’ve really turned a page.
“You can look at Catalans teams of old and they have probably not had that away-game consistency in the past, but it’s obviously something they have knuckled down on this year and sorted that side.
“They are probably achieving what they have been looking to achieve for a few years now, so it’s going to be a tough game.”
Whatever the outcome of this latest encounter, which is live on Sky Sports along with the other five games from Magic Weekend, it is highly probable St Helens and Catalans will meet again in the play-offs – perhaps even in the Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 9.
You can look at Catalans teams of old and they’ve probably not had that away-game consistency in the past, but it’s obviously something they’ve knuckled down on this year and sorted that side.
St Helens prop Alex Walmsley
The Dragons are aiming to reach Super League’s showpiece match for the first time, having emerged as genuine contenders on the back of their historic 2018 Challenge Cup success and been just 80 minutes away from a maiden Grand Final appearance in last year’s pandemic-disrupted season.
Head coach Steve McNamara has won many plaudits for transforming the French side into a club who can challenge rugby league’s established order and is full of respect for their rivals who have been crowned champions a total of 15 times in their history, with eight of those coming in the Super League era.
“They have been the benchmark team for the past few seasons, first under Justin (Holbrook) and now under Kristian (Woolf), and when you talk about consistency…they have done that probably as a club for over 100 years, if we are being honest,” McNamara, whose side ended St Helens’ unbeaten start to the campaign with a 20-16 win in Perpignan in May, said.
“But particularly, throughout the Super League era, for me they have been a really, really good team. They are the benchmark, they are what we are all aiming for and we look forward to the challenge this weekend.
“I feel we are deserved to be where we are now, based on what we have done this season, but whether we deserve to be the League Leaders or win a Grand Final will be determined by what we do next.”
St Helens go into the match on the back of a 24-14 win over one of their longer-standing, closer-to-home rivals in Warrington Wolves on Bank Holiday Monday, with the clash at the Halliwell Jones Stadium seeing both sides produce jaw-dropping levels of intensity from minute one to 80.
Front-row Walmsley was in the thick of it for the hosts, carrying for nearly 100 metres with the ball in hand and making 22 tackles in defence, and believes these matches are ideal preparation as this year’s Challenge Cup winners bid for a third consecutive Grand Final triumph.
“The game on Monday, for me, was as intense as any Super League game I have played in,” Walmsley said.
“I have played in semi-finals and finals, and it was right up there, so it’s only going to put us in good stead for what’s coming up on Saturday in another tough challenge against the in-form team.
“It doesn’t get any easier, but we want to be playing against the best to make sure we are ready come the play-offs and hopefully getting back to Old Trafford.”
Catalans, meanwhile, cantered to a 64-0 win at home to bottom side Leigh Centurions and could secure the League Leaders’ Shield for the first time in their history on Saturday.
McNamara is not getting distracted by that prospect or the thought of his team received the trophy in Perpignan after their home match against Huddersfield Giants the following week, focusing only on toppling St Helens in Newcastle.
I feel we’re deserved to be where we are now, based on what we’ve done this season, but whether we deserve to be the League Leaders or in or win a Grand Final will be determined by what we do next.
Catalans head coach Steve McNamara
“We have probably got the biggest game of the season on the biggest stage of the season so far for us,” McNamara said.
“I know Saints played at Wembley, but for us it’s that’s really big-game feeling and all of that other stuff is side stuff and for other people to talk about.
“It would be nice [to win the League Leaders’ Shield this weekend] but, in reality, all the players and coaches are bothered about is preparing for this weekend, enjoying the occasion and putting in a really good performance.
“If that means we win and win the League Leaders’ Shield, we will enjoy the benefits of that afterwards.”
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