Sunday saw the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final double header and, in the first match, Steve McNamara’s Catalans Dragons emphasised just how good a side they have become in recent months by stunning St Helens in an emphatic 35-16 victory in Bolton.
While people wouldn’t have been overly surprised if the Frenchmen – currently enjoying a sensational run of form – had edged Saints out but, with the league leaders odds on favourites, very few would have seen the Dragons totally dominating their more illustrious opponents on a day where the Lancashire sun shone on the folk from Perpignan. Establishing themselves as the game’s dominant team in the early stages, Catalans boasted a 13-0 lead after 33 minutes and, following Morgan Knowles’ sin-binning for a high tackle – some thought it should have been a red – on Kenny Edwards, two converted quickfire tries from Tony Gigot and Benjamin Garcia, the latter of whom crossed twice in an impressive performance, saw them lead 27-0 at half time. It proved to be a score that Saints found impossible to close.
Coming out of the sheds for the second half with their tails up, Justin Holbrook’s men scored two tries with Mark Percival (50) and Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook (55) crossing. However, Sam Moa’s score shortly after the hour mark ended that mini-comeback and, despite England centre Percival’s second try, the Dragons were able to close the game out and secure what is sure to be one of their most memorable victories in their twelve year Super League existence. Indeed, the semi-final was a rerun of the club’s sole final where, in 2007, Catalans lost 30-8 to the Lancastrians in the first Challenge Cup final at the new Wembley Stadium. Now, the Dragons will face Warrington Wolves on Saturday 25th August in a bid to win their first major trophy after Steve Price’s men eased to victory over Leeds.
St Helens, however, will be hugely disappointed to have missed out on the chance – and a very realistic one it was, one adds – to become only the second team to win the treble of Grand Final, League Leaders’ Shield and Challenge Cup in one season. Many people believed that was certainly on the cards this season but, alas, the semi-final upset leaves Saints chasing just the two Super League trophies. For the Dragons, it marks a sensational comeback. Bottom as recently as late April, a run of just two Super League defeats in their last ten matches – including victories over Leeds, twice, and Castleford – saw the Dragons secure eighth place in the competition and ended the regular season as one of the most in form teams. That doesn’t even take into account that, last year, they only achieved Super League survival in the Million Pound Game.
Of his team’s turnaround, Steve McNamara was understandably delighted. “It’s incredible for the club. Last year we were in the Million Pound Game and this year we’re at Wembley. It’s been a fantastic turnaround and the players have worked extremely hard. We’ve got three weeks to get ready for the final and we’ll use that time to hopefully put in a performance like we did today,” the former Bradford and England coach told BBC Sport. Understanding that keeping Saints’ game under wraps, he added that “we couldn’t let Saints play. If we had come here, sat back and let them play we would have been in all sorts of trouble but that was the most physical we’ve probably been. Getting to the final will mean a lot for French rugby league. It needs a boost and hopefully us getting to the final will do that.”