Challenge Cup final: Catalans Dragons in focus

Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final: Catalans v Warrington
Venue: Wembley Stadium Date: Saturday, 25 August Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC One, radio commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and BBC local radio, plus live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.

From a Catalans Dragons perspective, Saturday's Challenge Cup final appearance is a tale of redemption, of turnaround and of revival.

From the prospect of relegation last October; tearily avoided in a mentally-draining and nerve-shredding shootout against Leigh Centurions to retain their Super League status, to dismantling the league leaders in the Challenge Cup semi-final to book a Wembley place less than 12 months later - it is quite a journey.

BBC Sport looks at the stories behind their achievement.

'All of France is behind you!'

President Macron with the France international football team
President Macron shared in France's World Cup win - will Catalans get a visit to the Elysee Presidential Palace?

It is highly unlikely that British prime minister Theresa May has had the Challenge Cup final on her radar, but her French counterpart president Emmanuel Macron has been wishing the Dragons good luck in the build-up to Saturday's final.

After being alerted to the feat of reaching the showpiece event by Catalans fan Gerard Maureta,external-link Macron sent a letter of support to the team which closed with the line - "Catalans Dragons - all of France is behind you!"

Quite a rallying call.

It is a far cry from the battles that rugby league has had to endure to stay alive in France through the years, as referenced by Dave Woods' excellent story of 'Rugby a Treize' as it is known in France.

"It would be a huge achievement [to win]," head coach Steve McNamara told BBC Sport. "It would be the first trophy for the club, it's only been a short existence, so to be a foreign team to win an English-based competition would grab the headlines in France but probably in England in terms of the national press also."

'It's been an incredible journey'

Steve McNamara
Steve McNamara has overseen a remarkable transformation of the Catalans Dragons team

There is no job in sport that requires a thicker skin than that of England manager, whatever the sport, and McNamara is lucky to have been blessed with a seemingly armour-plated hide.

It came in handy during a six-year spell at England head coach, and then again with Catalans, where the 46-year-old has made huge progress after a rough start.

"It's been an incredible journey this season," said McNamara. "We had only won two games after 11 league matches, and that was what made us as a group.

"People talk about teams being close, together, great spirit and everything else, we hear lots of talk about that.

"You try sitting after two wins from 11 games - you see the reality of where your squad is at, and we were still fighting for every play, every moment in training and trying to improve.

"To get from there to secure our top-eight status was number one and gave us stability to move forward for next season.

"The Challenge Cup timing was perfect, helped keep our momentum going, and suddenly we went from York where people thought there might be a giant-killing to find ourselves in the final."

The pressure during the low notes in Perpignan has rested on McNamara's shoulders as the coach, but there has only been positivity from above.

"Bernard [Guasch, Catalans owner] was outstanding, it's the nature of our job - there were a lot of rumours and speculation," he added.

"But I spoke to him face-to-face and there was 100% confidence, he knew that change was needed, he gave me the backing and support.

"He is very supportive as a chairman and that's all you want as a coach."

'There's a huge effort from the fans'

Jodie Broughton
Dragons winger Jodie Broughton celebrates with the Catalans fans, who have taken their colours and excitement to Magic Weekend and Bolton already this season

About 5,000 fans clad in 'Sang et Or' - blood and gold - will make their way to London on Saturday hoping to see Les Dracs crowned Challenge Cup winners for the first time in their 12-year history.

They hope to be joined by neutrals that will come under the Dragons banner, much as they did in their semi-final win over St Helens at Bolton.

"You look at the effort the fans are making to get to Wembley," McNamara added. "It's a working-class place and the prices are astronomical to get to England at this time of year.

"There's a huge effort from everybody involved, we see it at training every day, people come to watch our training sessions and we see the numbers growing week-by-week."

Ones to watch

Remi Casty
Remi Casty is one of only two surviving Dragons from the 2007 final, along with Vincent Duport

One of the catalysts behind the remarkable turnaround at Catalans this season has been Josh Drinkwater, whose steadying influence at half-back, game management and kicking game have brought the best out of an impressive attack.

It is a coincidence that the former London Broncos playmaker was in the Leigh side beaten in the Million Pound Game by his current employers, but has reignited his career in parallel with the Dragons with 15 try assists and 118 points with an accurate boot.

However, a half-back is only as good as the pack they play behind, and the Dragons' forwards have set a platform, most notably in the semi-final defeat of Saints.

Top metre-maker Julian Bousquet, former Sydney Roosters Grand Final winner Sam Moa and veteran of 2007's final appearance Remi Casty have given the Dragons' front row some punch, while cup-winning ex-Wigan hooker Michael McIlorum has brought a winning culture to Stade Gilbert Brutus.

Casty, now 33, was in the infancy of his career when he took the field at Wembley as an interchange in their defeat by Saints at Wembley 11 years ago.

"It happened too quick for me," Casty told the Rugby Football League. "I want to appreciate each second and each minute of everything."

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