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Catalans Dragons primed to create history at Wembley

French side can become first from outside the UK to win Challenge Cup

Paul Aiton of Catalans in action
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Catalans v Warrington
BBC1, 3pm Saturday

Last September, Catalans Dragons clung on to their Betfred Super League status by beating Leigh in the winner-takes-all Million Pound Game but now the Dragons are just 80 minutes from making history by becoming the first side from outside the UK to lift the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.

The French club had a similar opportunity against St Helens in the first final at the new Wembley in 2007, but they were beaten 30-8.
Very few gave Catalans a chance that day but this time there’s a genuine belief that the 2-1 underdogs can upset the odds.

The rugby league world was forced to sit up and take notice when Steve McNamara’s men routed runaway Betfred Super League leaders St Helens in the semi-finals, romping to a 27-0 half-time lead before easing home 35-16 against a shell-shocked Saints.

But that performance shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise as Catalans had already completely turned their season around after winning just two of their opening 11 games.

The semi-final demolition made it 11 wins in 15 games since the arrival of Australian scrum-half Josh Drinkwater in April.

Drinkwater, who was in the Leigh side 11 months ago, and Kiwi Kenny Edwards have made a huge difference to the Dragons’ fortunes and the bookmakers have been slow to catch up.

Prior to suffering post-semi-final hidings by Warrington and Wigan when key men were rested and their eyes appeared to be on Wembley, the Dragons had rewarded their handicap backers in 15 consecutive matches.

The underdogs are an appealing proposition getting a decent handicap start.

The 56-6 hammering by the Wolves at the Halliwell Jones a fortnight ago and the 26-0 embarrassment at home in March should be ignored as form guides with the Dragons fielding a virtual reserve side in the recent game and woefully out of sorts at the time of the other.

The 22-22 draw in Warrington in July is a far better barometer of how closely matched the two teams are.

Challenge Cup final specials

Another 80-minute stalemate, which would lead to the first Challenge Cup Final settled in golden-point extra-time, is a 28-1 chance.

The Wolves are warm favourites to lift the famous trophy for the fourth time in the last ten seasons.

Warrington have produced mightily impressive knockout wins over Wigan and Leeds under new coach Steve Price.

They are fourth in the league, four places and ten points above the Dragons, but their form since setting off on the Wembley trail in April is very similar to that of their final opponents.

The Wolves have won 11, drawn one and lost five since then although it’s fair to point out that all those defeats came against Super League’s top three of St Helens, Wigan and Castleford.

Price is able to welcome back Ryan Atkins and Harvey Livett from injury but is without suspended forward Sitaleki Akauola.

Catalans have Greg Bird banned and flying winger Jodie Broughton missing with a season-ending knee injury but the underdogs have made light of those absences before and can do so again.

Captain Remi Casty returns after being rested last weekend and McNamara believes his rotation policy over the last fortnight has ensured the Dragons will come out breathing fire at Wembley.

Catalans will hoping the support of Emmanuel Macron will prove as effective as the French president’s backing of the national football team at the World Cup was.

This week, Dragons have received a letter from their head of state saying: “All of France is behind you.” And so are punters backing the underdogs on the handicap.

Catalans +6.5
4pts 10-11 bet365

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The Wolves are warm favourites to lift the famous trophy for the fourth time in the last ten seasons
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