22 May 2020

The Tip Sheet: Steve McNamara


What is it?

Super League has many of the best, most innovative coaches in any sport and this is the chance to see how exactly how their minds work.

A new content series called The Tip Sheet will give sports fans, rugby league supporters and coaches at all levels an unrivalled insight into the tactical and technical nous of the best thinkers in the game.

Super League coaches have been given the freedom to breakdown an element of the game of their choosing, all of which will be available to see here.

Q&As will also be scheduled so viewers can unpick what they have watched and get their queries answered.


In the first episode, Catalans Dragons head coach Steve McNamara reveals the fascinating game plan that his side worked on ahead of the Challenge Cup semi-final against St Helens in 2018.

Over the course of the 30-minute masterclass, McNamara takes you through why they came up it, how they implemented it, and what worked on the day.

Having lost twice to Saints in the regular season, it might sound strange to learn that Dragons’ players were happy enough with the draw.

McNamara admits the league leaders were “head and shoulders the best team in the competition that year” yet he still fancied his side’s chances more against the treble-chasing Saints than he did Leeds Rhinos or Warrington Wolves, the side Catalans would eventually beat in the final at Wembley.

McNamara explained: “The thing I felt comfortable with was how well I knew Justin Holbrook.

“We were together at Sydney Roosters as assistant coaches, and while Saints were a brilliant side, I knew how they would attack.

“In that sense, of the three teams we could have faced, they were the easiest for us to plan for.

“I knew the Saints attacking system well – they had a very strict structure, with brilliant players around it.

“We had played them twice that season already, and although we’d lost, we had been really competitive for long periods.

“For me, it was an opportunity to sell a plan to our players because we knew what the opposition was going to do.

“The question for us was, ‘Would we be good enough on that one day to stop it working?’.”

Dragons would go on to a record a shock 35-16 win.

Here’s a glimpse into how they did it.

Priming Language

‘The key for me was that our team wasn’t beaten before the game.’

McNamara emphasises the importance of the nine-week period between the draw being made and the fixture at The University of Bolton Stadium in August,  2018.

Dragons had a team meeting the day after the draw was made, which McNamara remembers well.

“I casually asked the players for their thoughts on getting Saints and they were very comfortable with it,” he said.

“They weren’t fazed or over-confident, they just nodded because they knew what to expect.

“The key for me was that we weren’t beaten before the game – Saints could do that to you that season.

“They are, and were, a brilliant team - but our players thought we could win and that was a big step forward for us.”

The perceptive way McNamara breaks down the game itself is illuminating, and it will provide fans with a level of analysis they may never have seen before.

But as McNamara points out the process his side went through in the build-up to the game was also carefully crafted.

He added: “We didn’t speak about Saints until the week of the semi-final - but in the period beforehand we started using some really strong priming language.

“It was important for us to get into the heads of our players, so they knew we were ready for them, and as staff we also couldn’t flinch or show any element of doubt that we could win the game.

“We had to convince the players that what they saw before the game was what they would see during the game.  

“A good example of priming language is saying things like, ‘we will take time and space off them; we will know everything that they do; we will be ready; we will go after them’.

“We would repeat those phrases to players time and again - and that process started nine weeks out.”

Game plan

In the two Super League matches between these sides prior, McNamara had noticed a passivity in his team’s defensive approach that afforded Saints’ ball players - the likes of Jon Wilkin, Ben Barba, Danny Richardson and Jonny Lomax - a level of time and space which made them almost impossible to defend.

That analysis was instructive in shaping McNamara’s plan for one of the biggest games in the club’s history.

While showing examples of how Saints’ attack broke down his team in the Super League defeats that season, the former England head coach explains how he adapted their system to blunt the same brilliant attacking St Helens team.

“When people talk about game plans, they normally talk about them in the context of attack,” McNamara says.  

“They tend to focus on what they are going to do teams when they have the ball.

“The main point for us was that our game plan needed to revolve around our defence.

“Our attacking plan was designed to complement our defence plan - because that was what would win us the game.

“In the matches against them earlier in the season we gave their good players too much time and space on the ball.

“We knew we couldn’t do that against them.”

The plan had four key areas of focus:

  • Stop Roby

“We needed to play a high risk, pressure-style defence.

“We had to control the ruck first and stop James Roby running from dummy half.

“Saints are very good at playing to the edge - but they are equally good at knocking down the front door.

“They will come at you [hard] first and try to win the tackle area and get quick play-the-balls, and with Roby at hooker they have the best dummy half in the game.

“If Roby runs for 100 metres, Saints win games.

“We had to make sure the front door was secure; we had to make sure that when [Luke] Thompson [and the other big guys] carried the ball our tackling was better than it had been.”

Roby was restricted to seven runs in the game, which McNamara attributes to the Catalans’ defensive detail, but also down to their attacking game complementing that system.

Dragons concentrated on keeping the ball in the middle of the pitch, to make the Saints’ playmaker work hard.

McNamara added: “The first part of our attacking plan was to make Roby make as many tackles as he possibly could.

“He’s a huge threat – there’s nothing genius about it, but we managed to it.”

Roby made 61 tackles in the game.

  • Get defensive line set

“Simple, really. We needed to get in better positions and be better organised earlier, so we could push off the line and close more space on the Saints shift plays.”

  • Pressure the ball carriers

“The idea of that was to put pressure on Jon Wilkin and Danny Richardson playing in front of the line.

“If we gave them time and space they could play the ball to the edge nice and easily.

“We were going to pressure them and get to them earlier than we had done before.

“We had Michael McIlorum, who was probably the best in the competition at doing that, so he could help us achieve that.”

  • Defend aggressively on the edge

“It’s high-risk and you can miss lots of tackles - but we knew that if we sat back we had no chance of winning the game.

“We could not let Lomax and Barba have time on the ball out the back of their plays.

“You have to scramble really well playing this way because we knew Saints would fracture us at times.

“You have to cover each other and we knew we would have to defend like dogs.

“That is another example of the priming language we had used: defend like dogs.”

Post-match, Saints head coach Holbrook congratulated Dragons for the way the ‘bullied’ his side.

And in conclusion, McNamara added: “We played that Saints side on three other occasions that year and lost each time.

“But for this one we had huge motivation – as Catalans Dragons we had the opportunity to win our first ever trophy, and we were well-prepared physically and mentally.  

“This was the right game plan for us, against the right team, on the right day.”

To see the full breakdown of McNamara’s game plan in action click here.