Wembley glory for Catalans history makers
France’s golden summer of sport continued with a historic afternoon as Catalans Dragons won their first Challenge Cup. The victory over seven-time winners and favourites Warrington Wolves made them the first French winners as well as the first non-English champions in the competition’s history.
Dragons, coached by Steve McNamara, were the better team for the first 55 minutes, maintaining good discipline and high tempo while undermining Warrington’s composure.
It was very much an underdog tale as Catalans had barely survived relegation from Super League last season, winning the million-pound match to secure their future.
Despite a sluggish start to the season, Dragons fought back to secure their Super League status, allowing them to go on a cup campaign that included a shock win over St Helens in the semifinals.
The significance of the win had not quite sunk in on McNamara, the former England coach, in the match’s aftermath. “I can’t really sum it up now, it is a bit surreal. The group did incredibly well executing for large periods of the game,” he said.
Despite the Dragons’ recent travails, the coach always had belief in his tightly knit group of players, who have a strong French core supplemented by foreign talent.
McNamara said: “The biggest thing that these players did was implement change on and off the field and they have put in some unbelievable performances in the second half of the season to secure our Super League status. Now we have this trophy. It is all credit and testament to the players.
“I never thought we would win the Challenge Cup this season but I was confident that we would start playing well and that we would continue to grow as a club as well.”
Dragons full-back Tony Gigot became the first French winner of the prestigious Lance Todd Trophy, the Challenge Cup man of the match award. The 27-year-old was imperious in both attack and defence.
The victory will be considered as a major boost for rugby league in France. The sport had suffered at the hands of politics.
In the 1930s the 13-man code bloomed as French rugby fans and players became disenchanted with high levels of ill-discipline in union.
However, during the Second World War, the Vichy government banned rugby league as many officials had backed union. Despite French league making a comeback in the 1950s and 1960s, it missed out on television coverage and has lagged behind union.
Fast forward over half a century and Dragons received a good-luck message from Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and it was clear the Perpignan-based side were playing for the future of their sport. The victorious captain, Remi Casty, used this message as motivation before kick-off. “It is good for us to have the support of the French president. He told us the whole country were behind us. I thought about this as we listened to the national anthems before the game. There were nine French players in the starting team. We are first Catalans Dragons and French after that.”
Catalans could not have asked for a better start as they seemed to take Warrington by surprise and, at just under two minutes, wing Lewis Tierney sneaked over the line after Warrington full-back Stefan Ratchford fudged a high ball. The 23-year-old Scotland international is the son of former dualcode England international Jason Robinson, who himself scored two tries in Wigan’s 1995 Challenge Cup final. Australian scrum-half Josh Drinkwater, who had been working on a Sydney building site earlier this year after he was released by Leigh Centurions, completed a fairy-tale comeback as he slotted over the first of his four kicks. Drinkwater slotted a penalty minutes later. Warrington came back into the game via a try from replacement forward Ben Murdoch after a long period of deliberation from video referee Ben Thaler.
The score was 14-6 at half-time after a try from Catalans second-row Ben Garcia. After a magical 40/20 kick from Gigot and some composed passing from the Catalans backs, Brayden Wiliame went over for a try, with the Drinkwater conversion making the score 20-6.
In a crowd of just over 50,000, the lowest for a Challenge Cup final in the post-war era, all the neutral support went to the French side.
Just over 5,000 fans made the journey from the south of France, with as many as 30,000 wishing to make the journey but could not due to prohibitive travel costs. McNamara was highly conscious of this and was excited at the thought of flying back to Perpignan.
“I just know how much money has been spent by the fans, trying to get across here,” he said. “I think getting back to Perpignan early on Sunday morning will be when it will really hit us that we won.”
Warrington burst back to life with a try from George King. A conversion and a penalty by Tyrone Roberts took to the score to 20-14. Despite Warrington pressing for large periods of the closing quarter, Catalans hung on for a famous victory that has the potential to breathe a whole new lease of life into the code.
‘I can’t really sum it up, it is a bit surreal. The group did so well’
Glory boys: Fouad Yaha looks to offload for Catalans Dragons (top) and Ben Garcia celebrates scoring their second try (above) as the French side went on to celebrate victory (inset)