French Dragons ready to storm rugby league's northern fortress

Manchester (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


The Catalans Dragons have a date with history when they take on two-time defending champions St Helens in the Super League final at Old Trafford.

The only non-English club in the competition have gone from patsies to powerhouse since joining in 2006.

They have won the Challenge Cup and on Saturday can take the biggest prize, the Super League trophy, out of England for the first time.

The final is traditionally played at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United.

"Just playing at Old Trafford is already incredible for us," said loose head Mickael Goudemand. "And to win there..."

The French club from Perpignan, close to the Spanish border, were founded in 2000 after the merger of Catalan XIII and Saint-Esteve, two big fish in the small pond of French rugby league, who between them had won 17 national championships.

The Dragons edged out two other French applicants to join Super League in 2006.

The league has long tried to break out of its heartland: a narrow band across northern England from Hull to eastern outskirts of Liverpool, admitting teams in London, Wales, Paris and Toronto.

Only the Dragons have survived. After a rocky start, they have thrived.

In their first season they finished last, but quickly progressed.

In 2007 they reached the Challenge Cup final, losing at Wembley to St Helens. They won the cup in 2018.

In the league playoffs they were unable to take the last step, losing in semi-finals in 2009, 2014 and last year.

- 'Liberated' -

Perpignan rugby league has a history of overcoming obstacles.

When Catalan XIII were founded in 1934, they were immediately embroiled in a bitter legal feud with the Perpignan rugby union team.

During the Second World War, the Vichy regime, France's wartime government which collaborated with the Nazis, banned rugby league and the club, briefly, had to change disciplines and names, becoming Catalan XV.

This season they dominated Super League, finishing six points clear of St Helens to win the League Leaders' Shield for the first time.

In the playoff semi-final they broke through at last, beating Hull KR 28-10 in the frenzied atmosphere of the packed Gilbert-Brutus Stadium in Perpignan.

"Everyone was there," said captain Benjamin Garcia.

"It was the game we must not lose," he said, adding that he felt "liberated".

The Dragons won that match without the league's Man of Steel, or player of the year, Sam Tomkins, who will be back from injury for his fourth Grand Final. He won he previous three with Wigan.

The Dragons are led by former England coach Steve McNamara.

"He told us we were having the best week of our lives," said Garcia. "We're going to the final to have fun, not with any negative pressure."

Garcia played in the Challenge Cup triumph but said this would reward "the work of a whole season".

St Helens might have been runners up in the league, but they bring experience of the big occasion as they chase a 16th championship and a third in a row. They won the Challenge Cup in July.

They will also bring the greater support. Their Totally Wicked Stadium is barely 20 miles from Old Trafford.

Fans of the Catalans, based 780 miles to the south, are restricted by health rules and cost, although the club have chartered a flight from Perpignan.

"We know how difficult it is to get to England", said prop Julian Bousquet.

"We will have our supporters in the corner of our minds and that will help us make the extra effort to bring Super League back to them."

It could be a doubly significant weekend for France. On Sunday, Toulouse Olympique host Featherstone Rovers in the promotion final aiming to join the Dragons in Super League.