In August 2007, the French rugby league club tackled St Helens in the Challenge Cup final – and although they didn’t win, their loyal fans didn’t mind too much
At midday yesterday, under the gaze of Big Ben in Westminster, a throng festooned with red-and-yellow flags met to begin their pilgrimage to Wembley. Against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliament, these proud supporters of the Catalan Dragons, in their traditional colours of sang et or (blood and gold), were something of an incongruity, but it was hard not to be taken in by their good humour.
Trumpets sounded, Catalan songs were sung and alcohol consumed as they snaked their merry way to North-West London. For them, as the first French team in the final, and with this being the first time in eight years that Wembley has hosted the final, this was a dream – the score would not matter.
“I don’t care if it’s 50-50,” beamed Robert Pelissier, a season-ticket holder at Stade Gilbert Brutus back in Perpignan. Despite the great expense, he flew his family to London for the weekend for the match against St Helens, the current Super League, World Club Cup and Challenge Cup champions.
“We’ve been to Cardiff, and last year Twickenham, but never to Wembley, the temple of league,” Robert’s wife, Magali, covered in the Catalans’ uniform, offered.
In only their second Super League season, the French team had surpassed their wildest expectations by making the final. To the purists, however, wiping ale from their silvered whiskers, a final between the two rugby league super powers – Wigan and St Helens – would have been fitting for the occasion. Wigan’s 37-24 defeat to the Dragons in the semi-final caused many of the former’s fans to hand back their Wembley tickets.
Craig Spence, the RFL’s communications manager, was pleased that the 73,000 tickets allocated to them were all sold, and conceded that demand for final tickets was insatiable. “It has been the most in-demand cup final in recent memory,” he said. The 17,000 Club Wembley seats were one problem, but a marketing campaign, enlightening these supposed mostly football fans on the delights of rugby league in order that they would attend, seemed to have worked, as the crowd reached 84,241.
The estimated 5,000 Catalan supporters, who made the trip, by plane, train and car, were outnumbered five to one by St Helens’ fans. The Dragons laid on coaches and chartered three planes in an attempt to transport as many Catalans across the channel, however, at a cost. A VIP ticket cost 1,000 – “The equivalent of one month’s wages,” suggested Magali – prompting many to seek alternative routes.
As the underdogs, the Dragons gained the support of the neutral. As it was, the final score of 30-8 was fair, but far from the mauling that many expected. The chairman of St Helens, Eamonn McManus, claimed that after their third Challenge Cup victory in four years, St Helens have “to be up there as one of the greatest sides in history”.
In the press box, it was clear how important Les Catalans’ appearance in the Challenge Cup final was to the French. As well as being covered by national channels Canal+, France 2 and Stade 2, and regional stations TV 3, France 3, and Televisió de Catalunya, Australian and New Zealand stations were also in attendance.
Further, the mayor of Perpignan, the regional president and the minister for sport, Roselyne Bachelot, were present. “Having The Catalans in the final was fantastic for the development of rugby league in Europe,” suggested Spence. “We have been able to market the game to a much wider audience.”
The Catalans’ owner Bernard Guasch – a handy scrum-half for XIII Catalan in his prime – was certain his team’s appearance will help develop rugby league in France. “This is the rebirth of rugby league in France,” he said. “Today is a fantastic day for French rugby league. Today we learned a lot and we will come back stronger and better.”
Guasch’s money has afforded the skills of many Australasian backs, with the idea being that these experienced internationals will nurture the French through their teething troubles in the professional era, until such time native youngsters will replace them.
Robert Pelissier summed matters up: “The fact we played the best team in the game, and at Wembley, must be an inspiration and motivation to French youngsters.”
This article was first published in The Observer in August 2007