Wem­b­ley glory for Cata­lans his­tory mak­ers

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Kate Rowan

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)

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