Rugby League Expert
Jon Wells: The Super League Big Changes Tour part one - Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique
French sides Catalans and newly-promoted Toulouse are the first teams to come under the microscope as one of Sky Sports' rugby league experts looks at the changes taking place across Super League ahead of the 2022 season
Last Updated: 18/11/21 1:06pm
In the first of a four-part series, Sky Sports rugby league expert Jon Wells casts his eye over the changes taking place across Super League ahead of the new season, starting with the competition's two French clubs...
As all players report back to their clubs for the start of pre-season ahead of Super League XXVII, I get the feeling there has been much more activity in terms of personnel movement - on and off the field - than for as long as I can remember. There appears to have been more rolls of the dice, more gambles, more new pages turned.
That level of change affects culture, direction and - club bosses will hope - fortunes ahead of a season which consequently has a really fresh and vibrant feel to it. The question is: Why? Why such big change and why so far-reaching? What events underpin such a seismic shift across the league?
Super League ins and outs for 2022
Who's going where among the 12 Super League teams as they build their squads for the 2022 campaign.
Well, two things have happened in the season just passed which, for me, have provided a huge catalyst for change; some of which will be played down as fine-tuning, whereas in other cases it is inescapably, and can be described as nothing other than, a start-over.
Firstly, Catalans Dragons showed everyone that their Challenge Cup Final win in 2018, and play-off semi-final appearance in 2020 was no fluke by taking the League Leaders Shield, losing only four games in the process, and making the Grand Final in 2021.
That is a massive shot across the Channel and across the bows of many established Super League clubs from a team that, from a standing start back in 2006, has now muscled and elbowed its way to the top table of our sport. I think this has shocked many club owners into action.
Secondly, St Helens won that Grand Final against the Dragons to make it three in a row. They're busy creating a dynasty and have asked a very serious question to the rest of the Super League clubs - essentially, who is going to stop us? That, too, has prompted change.
So, what does that change, that action, look like on the ground? Well, it's significant across a number of clubs as they look to renew and improve their chances of keeping pace with St Helens. In my opinion, it's the most significant change across more clubs than at any time in the last decade.
I tell you what, let me take you through the gates of each club and take a peek in their respective dressing rooms and coaches offices ahead of Super League XXVII to show you what I mean. We'll informally call it the Big Changes Tour, and our journey starts in the South of France.
Catalans Dragons had a magnificent 2021. Push open the home dressing room door at Stade Gilbert Brutus and you will immediately notice, once you nudge past the newly-crowned Man of Steel Sam Tomkins, the absence of a key face.
James Maloney was one of the men who was central to the success of the Dragons over the last two years and someone who has really helped move the needle for this club since his arrival. He has exited stage left - and 230 miles due west - to play on in the French Elite 1 Championship for Lezignan in 2022.
Maloney's loss is, however, offset by the arrival of Mitchell Pearce from the Newcastle Knights. That's a cracking signing as Pearce is a wonderful talent and this is a huge statement of continued intent from Les Dracs for the upcoming season.
Expect one or two more new signings to push open that same dressing room door in the next month or so, but nothing wholesale. The balance of this squad is good and the new breed of young French talent has gradually and successfully been drip-fed into a roster rich with international talent and experience.
This is an exciting time to be a Dragons fan - and a Super League fan for that matter because, whoever you support, the whole sport now has another legitimate top-tier team capable of winning major silverware.
To me, that fact is clearly driving change among other clubs. Their step change has forced big changes elsewhere, as we will see.
If we leave the Dragons then, and travel along the E80 with the French Pyrenees as our backdrop to our left, you will arrive at the La Ville Rose and Super League's newest member club following their promotion in October, Toulouse Olympique.
As we pull up at Stade Ernest-Wallon we may catch head coach Sylvain Houles deep in conversation with his chairman Bernard Sarrazain, and there will be plenty of those conversations taking place over the coming weeks - and will have been many already.
The aim for this club in 2022 is simple - to not make this a 12-month soiree in Super League and Toulouse have two things going for them in 2022 which will help them achieve this goal.
The first is geography, as English-based Super League clubs still haven't solved the travel-preparation puzzle involved in going to the South of France in a busy weekly round schedule of fixtures, and the second is that, at least for the opening stanza of the season, they will be relative unknowns.
Opposition teams can watch as much footage as they like in preparation, but it is not until you are in front of a player like Jonathan Ford or Mark Kheirallah that you get to really understand how they move and how they interact with their teammates that you start to properly understand how to address the challenge that Olympique will pose. The start to their season will have a huge bearing on where in the ladder they finish.
As an aside, and before we jump on a plane back to England, it is worth mentioning what a massive change Toulouse's promotion makes to the look and feel of Super League.
For a start, their arrival in the top league creates another two fantastic derby days to witness in 2022. Toulouse is a big, cosmopolitan city and the draw will be huge for travelling fans.
The particular plane we're getting on, by the way, is headed for Leeds-Bradford airport. So, it makes sense that the next team we visit is at Headingley Stadium - and we'll do that tomorrow.