The 2018 Rugby League European Championship kicks off later this month with the first round of matches taking place on October 27. Silverware is on the line for the outright winner, with the top two teams at the end of the tournament automatically qualifying for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
The Welsh are the defending champions and they open their campaign with a trip to Carcassonne and the Stade Albert Domec to take on France. Here is a preview of what to watch out for:
How will Wales adapt to a new captain?
When Craig Kopczak retired from international rugby league to focus on his club career, it left a hole in the leadership structure that needed filling quickly. The 31-year-old had won 22 caps for his country, but he was quickly given the reigns of captaining the side, leading the Welsh out on 13 occasions, with the last two editions of the World Cup also spanning his reign as Welsh captain.
Kopczak presumably saw the 2021 World Cup as a bridge too far for his career. In his stead, the Welsh quickly named fullback Elliot Kear as their new skipper.
Wales finished fourth in 2014 after this chastening encounter with France, before surging back to win the contest the following year.
Given that he was the vice-captain for the 2017 World Cup, it is fair to say that the 29-year-old has been well-groomed for this position. At club level, his endeavours for the London Broncos have seen the club’s odds of winning the 2019 Challenge Cup in outright rugby league betting markets shorten to 66/1, but stepping up to be the on-field leader – and decision maker – for Wales is going to be something else entirely.
One of the biggest tests for Kear will be leading from the fullback position. Kopczak lined up at either prop or second row, meaning that he was always around the ball. Kear, on the other hand, will have a much more difficult task in spurring on his teammates from the back of the paddock.
How will Catalans’ success translate?
There is something to be said for momentum in sport and the French side will have a massive boost of momentum behind them when they face the Welsh. Catalans shocked the rugby league world earlier this year when they became the first French side to win the Challenge Cup.
That event is considered by many to be the most significant in the history of French rugby league, and Wales should not for one moment underestimate the task that lies ahead. Indeed, the fact that the initial 28-man France squad for this clash contained no less than nine Catalans – including captain Remy Casty – illustrates that this could not be a worse time for Wales to face ‘Les Bleus’.
Casty gives his thoughts on Catalans’ historic Challenge Cup triumph.
That 28-man squad contained another 10 players from Toulouse. The ‘Olympians’ only narrowly missed out on promotion to the Super League for the 2019 season, equating to a whole 19 players that have been playing winning rugby league this season.
Winning becomes a culture and a habit; this will be a strong French side with few – if any – players contributing from the lower level domestic league. Morgan Escare of Wigan will be a particularly important player with his speed and dynamic running ability from the fullback position. All expectation will be for the French pack to try to dominate the middle of the pitch, thus giving their playmakers room to operate.