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CATALANS DRAGONS became the first non-English club to lift the Challenge Cup on Saturday after defeating favourites Warrington in an historic final.
Just 50,672 fans were in attendance at Wembley, making it the lowest attendance for a Challenge Cup final at the stadium since 1937, but those who were there witnessed an important moment in the history of the sport.
Catalans’ full back Tony Gigot became the first Frenchman to win the Lance Todd Trophy which is awarded to the man of the match.
He epitomised the Dragons’ competitive spirit, fighting for every advantage he could get no matter how small and this ultimately made a big difference.
Lewis Tierney, Benjamin Garcia and Brayden Wiliame crossed for Catalans, and these tries, combined with Josh Drinkwater’s perfect afternoon of goal-kicking, gave Steve McNamara’s side the win.
Warrington looked short of ideas in attack and were only able to cross the line themselves via opposition errors. Ben Murdoch-Masila pounced after Fouad Yaha misjudged a high kick, and George King followed up after Drinkwater failed to gather a Kevin Brown grubber.
This was Warrington’s fifth final in 10 years and their fans are becoming familiar with the trip down to Wembley, but they were defeated by underdogs again, as was the case against Hull FC in their last visit in 2016.
“It was incredible for us. We’ve been underdogs all year and we’ve had to work really hard,” said McNamara.
“Wembley. We’ve won a Challenge Cup. First trophy for the club and great for everyone back in France also.
“These people [the travelling fans] have made such a huge effort to get over here and I’m pleased for them. Over the moon.”
Not only are Catalans the only club outside England to be playing in Super League, they are the only club in the competition residing outside the M62 corridor which encapsulates the sport’s northern English heartlands.
Southern France also has a rich history of rugby league and, throughout their existence, teams in this region are used to fighting against the odds.
Not only have they had to compete against the powerful rugby league clubs in Northern England but the sport also survived an attempt in the 1940s by the pro-nazi Vichy government to wipe it out altogether.
Rugby league, a working class sport wherever it has taken root, was associated with socialism and was outlawed by the authorities and its assets were handed over to the French Rugby Union.
The sport initially struggled to re-establish itself in the shadow of the other code but has slowly made progress over the years.
Clubs began to take part in the Challenge Cup and Catalans joined Super League in 2006, reaching the cup final a year later where they were defeated by St Helens.
Toulouse Olympique have a chance this year of promotion to Super League via the Super 8s Qualifiers and have been the surprise package in the second division.
Things are looking up for French rugby league, but there is still work to do.
The effects of oppression from rugby union and a the Vichy government 76 years ago are still felt, but Catalans’ final win could be the most important step forward to date.
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