GEOGRAPHICALLY, the Challenge Cup’s new home could not be much farther away from where it has resided for the past two years, but its link with Yorkshire – and Hull in particular – remains intact.
Though Saturday’s final was the first since 2007 not to feature a team from the White Rose, for the fifth successive year a Yorkshireman masterminded Wembley victory, Steve McNamara succeeding Brian McDermott and Lee Radford as the Challenge Cup-winning coach.
All three were members of Bradford Bulls’ mighty pack around the turn of the century and like Radford, McNamara is a proud son of Hull.
Whereas Radford achieved Cup glory with his hometown club, McNamara had to go farther afield, finally breaking his Wembley hoodoo when Catalans Dragons held off Warrington Wolves in a compelling final worthy of a far bigger crowd than the 50,672 in attendance.
McNamara endured last-gasp agony at the same ground in 2013 when England lost a World Cup semi-final to New Zealand on the final play of the game. He was also a member of the Bradford team defeated by St Helens at the old national stadium 21 years ago and in the last 10 minutes it seemed McNamara might once again be left broken-hearted as Warrington pressed for a converted try to send the game into sudden-death extra-time.
Even a few months ago the French outfit would almost certainly have crumbled, but after a difficult start to his reign McNamara has turned things around and, if not the most attractive side to watch, Catalans are certainly a tough team to beat. Having won the million pound match at Leigh Centurions last year, to avoid relegation, the Perpignan-based side have climbed from the foot of the table to top-eight safety in Super League. Their victory over Warrington has made them the first club based outside England to win the Challenge Cup.
That is an historic achievement which could take the sport on the other side of the Channel to new heights, but on a personal level it was vindication for a coach who has had to overcome more than his fair share of disappointment and criticism.
Having been in charge of Bradford at the start of their spectacular decline his credentials have been questioned at times, but McNamara’s impact on Catalans, aided by some smart recruitment, has been huge.
With a match-winner of Sam Tomkins’ quality set to join them in 2019 the Perpignan-based outfit could be on the verge of something special.
Tomkins will reunite with his former Wigan Warriors teammate Michael McIlorum at Catalans next year. Born in Leeds, McIlorum had a big say in the final, though full-back Tony Gigot was a deserved winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.
On a personal level it was vindication for a coach who has had to overcome more than his fair share of disappointment and criticism.Peter Smith
Gigot has also gone from villain to hero, having six months ago won an appeal against a two-year ban imposed for an “inappropriate exchange” with an anti-doping official in 2016.
Another unexpected hero was substitute forward Mickael Goudemand, called into the side the day before the game when Louis Anderson failed a fitness test.
It was the 21-year-old’s sixth appearance for Catalans and a year ago he was a guest at Wembley of his then club Dewsbury Rams.
Warrington played their part, but left it too late after trailing 20-6 early in the second half.
They will, however, feel it might have been a different story had ex-Hull winger Tom Lineham’s first half touchdown not been ruled out by video referee Ben Thaler for an alleged obstruction.
They were 8-0 adrift at that stage to Lewis Tierney’s second-minute try and two Josh Drinkwater goals. Ben Murdoch-Masila pulled a try back, improved by Tyrone Roberts, but converted touchdowns either side of the break, by Ben Garcia and Brayden Wiliame, gave them too much to do.
Huddersfield-born George King pulled a try back and Roberts added the conversion and a penalty, but Catalans were worthy victors.
The challenge for rugby league now is to use their victory to broaden the sport’s appeal outside its traditional heartlands.
Catalans Dragons: Gigot, Tierney, Mead, Wiliame, Yaha, Langi, Drinkwater, Simon, McIlorum, Moa, Jullien, Garcia, Casty. Substitutes: Bousquet, Baitieri, Edwards, Goudemand.
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford, Lineham, Goodwin, T King, Charnley, K Brown, Roberts, Hill, Clark, Cooper, Livett, Hughes, Westwood. Substitutes: Murdoch-Masila, G King, Patton, Philbin.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).