“We didn’t even learn French in school!” Richie Myler chuckles when asked how his French lessons are going.
The former Warrington and Salford scrum-half left behind the north-west of England at the end of 2015 for a new chapter in his career living and playing in the south of France with the Catalans Dragons.
The 25-year-old scored 80 tries in 142 appearances during his six seasons with the Wolves and most notably lifted the Challenge Cup in 2012 following a 35-18 win over Leeds at Wembley.
Warrington just missed out on attaining the double that season as Leeds avenged their defeat when the sides met in the Grand Final at Old Trafford; an occasion in which Myler grabbed the first try to give Wire supporters hope of winning their first league title in 57 years.
The half-back was again on the losing side at Old Trafford 12 months later as Wigan beat the Wolves 30-16, but the experiences of playing in the grandeur occasions are what Myler says he cherishes most about his time in the Primrose and Blue.
“I had an amazing time at Warrington,” he reflected.
“I had six great years there. I’ve been fortunate to play in a Challenge Cup final and Grand Finals. We got beat in those two Grand Finals but it was still a great experience.
“I made a lot of good friends there and the club was very good to me. It will be interesting when I go back- hopefully I’ll get a good reception.
“I left on good terms and the club seems to be heading in the right direction as well which is always a good thing.”
After playing an integral role in Salford being promoted to Super League in 2009, the then 19-year-old became the most expensive teenage signing in rugby league history when Warrington parted with £200,000 for his services.
Myler spent his first five years at the Wolves playing alongside Catalans assistant coach Michael Monaghan and he claims the opportunity to work with the Australian again was one of the factors which influenced his decision to move to the south of France.
“I’m good friends with Michael away from rugby,” he explained.
“When the option to come to Catalans came up there was the draw of Monas being here and he told me good stuff. It wasn’t the deciding factor but to work with him again was definitely a reason why I’ve joined here.
“The way the club is heading was a big draw and I’m excited for my time here.”
For someone who has played in England for his whole career, Myler could easily be forgiven for speaking tentatively about the challenges which face him and his family in adapting to an unfamiliar culture.
However, even through a scrambled phone connection you can hear the excitement brimming in his voice when talking about the new chapter of his career.
When it became clear he wouldn’t be playing at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in 2016, Myler and his wife, former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, began to assess their next move.
The half-back became a father to his son Ernie back in June last year and despite rumoured interest from NRL side Manly he says the family needed a fresh start that wasn’t a million miles from home.
“There were a couple of other options but for myself and my family Catalans was the right choice,” he said.
“We’ve just had the baby and it would probably have been too far to have gone to Australia so across the channel was the right way to go.
“We’ve settled in well. It hasn’t really been much of a culture shock just a change to the way of life. For example on Sundays everything is closed, it’s a family day which is good. Nothing opens at all- if you want to go the supermarket you go on a Saturday.
“It’s a nice place to live and is quite relaxing.”
Myler’s new club Catalans are Super League’s Jekyll and Hyde team. The side have consistently made the top-eight in the past few seasons but dismal displays on their travels have prevented Laurent Frayssinous’ men from challenging for silverware.
The Dragons won just twice away from home last season- a 40-4 drubbing away to bottom of the league Wakefield and a 28-24 dead rubber against Hull FC in the Super 8s.
On the other hand, their home form is immaculate with only Leeds and Huddersfield leaving the Stade Gilbert Brutus with the two points in 2015.
After training in 20 degree heat for the past couple of weeks, Catalans were understandably perturbed by their visit to a freezing, rain-soaked DW Stadium last Friday in their opening game of the season.
Laurent Frayssinous’ side made 12 handling errors in the opening 40 minutes as they slowly adapted to conditions but put in a stronger second-half performance to narrowly lose 12-6 to a Wigan side who remain favourites with bookmakers to lift the Super League title in October.
Whether it is preparation, mentality or failure to adapt to conditions Myler insists the side are determined to overcome their away struggles this year.
“As an away team one of the factors you have to overcome is the travel and that’s always a tough ask,” he said.
“It’s an obvious fall and one we’ve spoken about putting right this year. But on the other hand you have to look at how good the home form was last year. We’re a really consistent team at home and hopefully we can continue that.
“If we can pick up a few more away wins this season then we shouldn’t be too far off the top.”
Myler is one of seven new faces at the Dragons this year and has the difficult task of replacing Scott Dureau following the Australian’s retirement at the end of 2015.
The nucleus of every successful rugby league side is a dynamic and audacious partnership in the halves and Catalans’ supporters will be hoping that Myler and Todd Carney will link-up and be the Dragons’ creative force this season.
Carney too is looking to kick-start his career in the south of France this season after injuries restricted him to making just 12 appearances last campaign and Myler is relishing the opportunity to play alongside the former Cronulla stand-off.
“He’s a very smart player and it’s good to be able to work alongside a player like that.
“Hopefully it brings my game on. He’s a talented player and hopefully we can get the best out of each other this year and be successful.
“There’s a good feeling amongst the team and a good spirit. There is that language barrier and it could have easily been a case of the English-speaking blokes sitting in one corner and the French in another but that’s not the case. You mix, get to know each other and I think that’s helped the team bond.
“We’re aiming for the top 8 and if we’re successful in the top 8 then we’re going to be happy with how we’ve done.”
Myler has lined up on the away side six times at the Stade Gilbert Brutus during his career but will walk out in Catalonian colours for the first time in front of the home fans on Saturday when the Dragons face Hull FC.
The half-back praised the fans for the electric atmosphere they generate and is excited to make his home debut in front of them at the weekend.
“We train at the stadium everyday and some fans come down and watch us train,” he said.
“It’ll be nice to play in front of a big crowd hopefully and to play here with the crowd cheering in my favour for the first time.
“As an away player it’s not always a good experience playing here. The fans can be very vocal but now they’ll be on my side.”
2016 is an exciting year for rugby league in France due to the reintroduction of Toulouse Olympique into the English competition and Challenge Cup.
The side will join League 1 with the intention of promotion to the Championship for next year and the long-term aim of joining Catalans in Super League.
Renewed interest, support and investment in the sport has led to Toulouse’s progress and Myler agrees that passion for rugby league among the locals is evident.
“There’s a massive draw for rugby league in this part of the world,” he says.
“When you meet the fans and you meet the locals in Perpignan you see their passion for the sport and Catalans. People come from far and wide to watch the team.
“If there ends up being another French team in the competition one day it’ll only make the fan base here even stronger.”
Kevin Brown believes the new signings Widnes have made are capable of helping the club clinch a play-off spot in 2016.
The Vikings have recruited Chris Houston and Corey Thompson from the NRL as well as bringing in Chris Bridge from Warrington, Setaimata Sa from Hull FC and Connor Farrell on loan from Wigan.
Despite performing well last season, Widnes failed to pick up enough wins to qualify for the Super 8s and Brown says improving their defence is key to securing more wins this campaign.
“We’ve done a lot of work defensively to improve,” said the Widnes skipper.
“We lost a lot of games last year in which we worked really hard and played well but fell just short and it was hard for me to hold my hands up and admit we weren’t quite good enough.
“That in some ways more demoralising than getting stuffed because at least if you get beaten badly you know you’ve got it in you to perform better.
“This year we’ve got genuine talent across the team- we haven’t just added squad players. The new guys have jumped straight into the first-team and are capable of winning us games on their own. With players like Chris Bridge and Setaimata Sa, you pass them the ball and they do things off their own back, make breaks and create opportunities for us to get over that line.
“A top-eight finish is a minimum for us this year. We don’t just want to finish in the top-eight and say “job done”. Our aim is to finish there and then hopefully shake the Super 8s up.”
After finishing the regular rounds in 9th place the Vikings dropped into the Middle 8s where five wins from seven games guaranteed their Super League spot for 2016.
Widnes conceded just 70 points across those seven matches and Brown says he was pleased with how the side performed in the Middle 8s.
“I think as a spectacle it worked really well,” said the former Wigan and Huddersfield player.
“You don’t want to be involved in the Million Pound Game but I’m sure a lot of people tuned in to watch it. The attendances and atmospheres were good in the Middle 8s and everyone got behind it.
“Once we got over the anxiety and the fear of “what happens if?” we just approached it the same as we would approach a Super League game.
“Nobody wanted to drop out of Super League again after all the club has done in recent years so full credit to our boys for coming through it and performing in a spectacular fashion.”
In an innovative move by the club for 2016, Brown will be involved in a ‘Captain’s Call’ decision each week in which the half-back will choose which kit the Vikings line-up in.
The skipper will choose from either an all-black or an all-white strip but insists it will have little bearing on how the side performs.
“I’m looking forward to getting the stick when I pick the wrong kit!
“The weather will come into it- if it’s going to be red hot I’ll pick the white kit. It’s a bit of fun but at the end of the day it’s not going to have a bearing on how we play.”
Danny Kirmond believes the nerve-wracking experience of playing in the Million Pound Game last season will motivate him and his Wakefield teammates to improve in 2016.
The Wildcats finished 4th in the Middle 8s and as a result faced 5th placed Bradford in the inaugural Million Pound Game for a place in Super League this season.
Kirmond led his team to a 24-16 victory but with the threat of the club having to go part-time and players losing their jobs if they had lost, the Wakefield captain admits it was a very tense time for the club.
“The million pound game isn’t where we want to be,” Kirmond told NothingButLeague.
“The excitement it created was great for the game and the spectators but as a player it was a nerve-wracking experience. If we’d have lost our contracts would have been voided and it was a very tense time.
“After the game it was a huge relief. I felt sorry for the Bradford guys but at the same time it was a huge relief for us to stay in Super League.”
Despite winning their opening two games in 2015, Wakefield went on to record just one further victory and finished the regular rounds bottom of the table.
Brian Smith took over from James Webster as head coach midway through last season and Kirmond says he is relishing the opportunity to work under the experienced Australian coach.
“He keeps you on your toes,” said the Wakefield skipper.
“He gets the best out of his players all the time and is challenging you to do better.
“As you get older and coming into your 30s sometimes you feel neglected and forgotten about and often the coaches overlook you and don’t expect you to improve too much but Brian is always challenging me and helping me improve my game.”
Wakefield get their 2016 campaign underway at home to Widnes on Sunday and Kirmond claims there is an excitement around the club which he hasn’t felt for a while.
“I’m excited for the start of the season like I haven’t felt for a number of years.
“We’ve added a great blend of youth and experience into the team and there’s a great sense of camaraderie in the squad this year.
“We believe we’ve got a great squad and are confident we can do really well. The top-eight is a realistic ambition but first of all it’s to improve on last year and not be involved in that million pound game.”
Alex Walmsley admits St Helens are still hurting from semi-final defeats in both the play-offs and the Challenge Cup last season.
Saints were denied a place at both Old Trafford and Wembley in 2015 by treble-winners Leeds who beat them 20-13 in the play-offs and 24-14 in their Challenge Cup semi-final.
The six-time Super League champions get their 2016 campaign underway at home to Huddersfield on Friday night and Walmsley says his side will be more motivated for success after last season.
“To lose in both semi-finals was very disappointing and heartbreaking because I firmly believe we were in those games and on another day might have won,” Walmsley told NothingButLeague.
“It has made us more motivated to do well this season. We’re hurting and we’ve trained even harder because of that.
“One tackle, one set, one try could be the difference between us going to Old Trafford so it’s those little things like giving away soft errors and tackle four penalties which add up and are ultimately the difference between coming first and finishing second.
“As a team we have always been there or thereabouts. Hopefully we will be a different animal this year and those semi-finals will go our way.”
Walmsley received strong praise for his performances last season and was one of three contenders for the Man of Steel award.
The former Batley player believes head coach Keiron Cunningham has played a big role in his development since arriving at Saints in 2013 and says he was pleased to see his coach sign a new deal until 2018 last week.
“He’s a great coach and a great person,” explained the prop, who won the Grand Final in 2014 with St Helens.
“What he’s done for the club as a player and now as a coach is amazing.
“He’s been great with me since I made the step up from Batley and has made me a better player. To have him as the coach for the next few years is going to be great for me and the team as a whole.”
With each team having strengthened ahead of the new campaign, Walmsley predicts the gap between the top and bottom sides will lessen this year and as a result says it could be the closest campaign in the competition’s history.
“It’s going to be a tough season- there are no easy games. Every team has strengthened and are looking sharp.
“As soon as the fixtures get announced you’re looking out for the two Wigan games and obviously the Good Friday match against them.
“Leeds and Warrington are the other games I look forward to the most. They’re always tough battles but the way that Super League is expanding each team each week is going to be a tough ask and I’m sure it’s going to be the closest Super League in history.”
Jason Baitieri says Catalans Dragons will need to improve their poor away record if they are to be considered play-off contenders this season.
The Dragons won just two games on the road in 2015- a 40-4 drubbing away at Wakefield and a 28-24 dead rubber match against Hull FC in the Super 8s.
Laurent Frayssinous’ side get their season underway on Friday night when they face Wigan at the DW Stadium and Baitieri says the team are determined to turn their away fortunes around this campaign.
“We’ve addressed it a few times and it’s a combination of preparation and a mental battle,” Baitieri told NothingButLeague.
“Mentally we have to be strong enough to find a way when we’re struggling on the field to push through.
“The club puts us in the most professional preparation they can with arranging flights and hotels but at the end of the day it’s up to the players to really turn it on and to be able to shake the monkey off our back and to get wins away from home.
“We’ve got the team to do it and have to show from round one that we have the team to do this.”
On the other hand Catalans’ home record is exemplary and the Dragons have turned the Stade Gilbert Brutus into a fortress which teams don’t enjoy visiting.
Only Leeds and Huddersfield left the south of France with the two points last season and is a record which Baitieri believes the players gain a lot of confidence from.
“Our home record speaks for itself. A lot of teams dread coming over and playing us and we get a lot of confidence from that,” said the France international.
“We need to find out now a way now of going into away games with that confidence also.”
Catalans have recruited well ahead of the new campaign with the likes of Pat Richards, Glenn Stewart, Richie Myler, Justin Horo and Paul Aiton coming in to bolster the squad.
However, the Dragons have lost some of their stand-out players from 2015 but Baitieri insists the quality of the players coming in ensures the team won’t suffer.
“It’s tough losing guys like Zeb Taia, Elliott Whitehead and Scott Dureau. They’ve been a part of the club for the past three, four, five years,” explained the loose-forward.
“They brought a lot to the team but the players we’ve recruited I think are fitting in really well. They’ve got a wealth of experience. Some have played Super League and some have played at the highest level in the NRL.”
After finishing the regular season in 8th, four wins from seven in the Super 8s saw Catalans finish above Hull FC in 7th at the end of the last campaign.
Baitieri says the Dragons will be pushing for a play-off spot in 2016 but acknowledges that finishing in the top-four will be more difficult than ever before.
“The top-four has been our objective for the last couple of years.
“It’s realistic but at the same time all the other teams in Super League have the same objective and have also recruited really well for this year so the competition is going to go up a notch.”