Josh Drinkwater was back in his home city of Sydney playing reserve-grade rugby league for Western Suburbs Magpies in April 2018 when he received a phone call that would drastically change the course of his career.
The half-back had returned to Australia after being released by Leigh Centurions following their defeat to Catalans Dragons in the previous year’s Million Pound Game and subsequent relegation. By a strange quirk of fate though, it was Dragons head coach Steve McNamara on the other end of the phone, looking for a short-term replacement for the injured Luke Walsh.
Within four months of arriving in Perpignan, Drinkwater was helping Catalans become the first French team to lift the Challenge Cup with a famous win over Warrington Wolves at Wembley and is now a firmly-established key player in the squad of the current Super League leaders.
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“It was strange because they’d beat us in the Million Pound Game the year before,” Drinkwater told Sky Sports. “I lost my contract with Leigh and went back to Australia and was just playing reserve grade there.
“But the style the Catalans played when Steve took over, I knew that would suit my game and when Steve rang me to come over, they were sitting pretty low in the ladder.
“But I knew the quality they had in the team and the style of play would suit me and I could make a difference.
“It was obviously a great year to come over after getting relegated the year before and to win the Challenge Cup, it was definitely a rollercoaster 12 months.”
Even then though, things did not run entirely smoothly for the 29-year-old as the signing of Matty Smith for the 2019 season saw him depart and spend that campaign with Hull Kingston Rovers. However, Smith’s departure at the end of the year saw McNamara back on the phone again.
Drinkwater has no hesitation in accepting a return to the south of France and helped the Dragons get to within 80 minutes of a first Grand Final appearance in the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season.
This season has seen Catalans build on that by sitting top of the Super League standings after 16 matches and on a club-record run of 12 wins and counting heading into this Saturday’s match away to reigning champions St Helens, which is live on Sky Sports.
The former St George Illawarra Dragons and Wests Tigers NRL player is enjoying life off the field too, living by the beach in the commune of Canet-en-Roussillon. However, rugby very much comes first as part of the success-oriented culture McNamara has instilled at Catalans since taking charge midway through 2017.
It’s only a few years since the Million Pound Game and now we’re sitting top of the competition halfway through the year.
Catalans Dragons’ Josh Drinkwater
“It probably goes to show the job Steve and the club have done to turn this place around,” Drinkwater said. “It’s only a few years since the Million Pound Game and now we’re sitting top of the competition halfway through the year.
“It’s a great club, everyone here is ambitious and wants to win things, and it’s a great place to live obviously as well.
“But we’re here to play rugby league and one thing Steve has emphasised to all the players coming in is it’s easy to get distracted with the beaches and the travel here, but we’re here to play rugby league first.
“Then, if you win and you’re playing well, you can enjoy the other things after that. Everyone has bought into that, and that’s why we’re a happy camp at the moment.”
Drinkwater’s return to Stade Gilbert Brutus coincided with the signing of compatriot James Maloney and it did not take long for him to strike up a good relationship on and off the pitch with the former Australia international stand-off.
Their partnership in the halves has proven highly effective over the past two seasons, allied to Sam Tomkins at full-back playing some of the best rugby of his career at present and a strong backbone of young French players like Arthur Mourgue making their mark.
“We’ve gelled really well,” Drinkwater said of his partnership with Maloney. “He’s the type of bloke that as soon as you meet him you become friends with him because he’s so positive and talks a lot.
“We get on off the field really well, so we’ve got a good combination. He’s achieved a lot in the game and has got no ego about him, and we’ve been combining really well.
2 more years at this great club and beautiful part of the world! https://t.co/0LdFp88BVw
“Then we’ve got Sam Tomkins out the back and he’s probably been the best player in the competition. Between us, I think things are going quite well and there are still things we can improve on, but so far we’re going good.”
Drinkwater is in no doubt the gameplan devised by McNamara and assistant coach Thomas Bosc allows him to flourish as a player too, which is part of the reason why he agreed to a two-year contract extension last month.
He senses a determination in the Dragons squad to add to that sole Challenge Cup success sooner rather than later, and a win over back-to-back champions St Helens at Totally Wicked Stadium – having downed the previously unbeaten side 20-16 in Perpignan in May – would put them in a great position to push for a maiden Super League title.
“They give us a gameplan, but they give us a bit of leeway which suits my game and the way we play,” Drinkwater said.
“I love it here, it’s a great group of boys as well. Everyone is friendly and it has its difficulties with the language and the culture, but I’m slowly getting there, and I was really happy to re-sign for a couple more years.
“Especially the way we’re going as a team at the moment, I think we’re going to keep improving and hopefully this year we can win some silverware and over the next few years keep challenging for it.”
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