It was never a promising season for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
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For Toulouse Olympic coach Justin Morgan, the 2004/05 French Elite season has been a solid and mostly successful campaign, but one they've largely spent in the shadows. Despite sitting in second place on the ladder, his team of part timers has predictably been forced to play second fiddle to Super League bound UTC - both on the field and off it. The two sides have met four times this year (three times in the Elite and once in the Lord Derby Cup), and on each occasion the Catalans have come away with the points. In fact, Steve Deakin's men are undefeated this season - a draw with reigning champions, St Gaudens the only time they've failed to grab maximum points all year. UTC, or "Les Catalan Dragons" as they're to be known from next season, have been grabbing all the headlines off the field as well with their high profile Chairman Bernard Guasch embarking on a global recruitment campaign in a bid to ensure his club can mix it with the best that the English game has to offer. So, for Morgan and his troupe of art-timers, this Sunday's Challenge Cup home Quarter Final clash with Widnes represents the perfect opportunity to make some headlines of their own. A win over a full-time proffessional Super League outfit, no matter where they sit on the ladder, would be a huge coup for the club and the French game in general, but just how realistic are their chances? According to Morgan, it's anything but mission impossible. "We're confident we can win the game. We're certainly not going in there thinking we're happy to make the quarter-finals. Obviously we're going to be underdogs, but, playing at home, playing in the heat, travelling away for Widnes, we've got a few factors that are pointing in our direction. We're just hoping to put in a good performance to make people understand that French rugby league is certainly progressing".
Judging by last Saturday night's controversial home defeat to UTC, Morgan's assertion certainly rings true when it comes to his own club. The Toulousain dominated a dour, physical and error-ridden encounter at the Stade Minimes and led 10-8 with just two minutes left on the clock. If they held on, they would have become the first side to beat the Catalans all season. But two minutes is a long time in rugby league and a dubious late try to Morgan's former New Zealand Warriors teammate, Justin Murphy, wrapped up the points for the league leaders and robbed the home side of a well deserved victory. In fact, to call it dubious is to put it mildly. Murphy clearly bounced the ball in the in-goal, but the referee, seemingly unsighted, awarded the try leaving the travelling Catalan fans in a state of unrestrained jubilation, and Morgan a frustrated man. "Their last try in the second half - even they were the first to admit that they didn't score it. And to lose by two points - it can be heart-wreching.
"I thought we did enough to win the match. In previous games where we've played them we've gotten beaten and probably deserved to get beaten. Tonight (Saturday night), I actually thought we deserved to win and unfortunately the powers that be in the middle of the field, I thought, made an incorrect decision, but you've gotta live with that, that's rugby league". Despite the outcome, the match proved Toulouse are capable of mixing it with a full-time professional outfit such as UTC. And Morgan is hoping his players repeat the dossage when they take centre stage against Widnes on Sunday afternoon. The club has worked hard on marketing the game and is hoping for a crowd of around 5000 to 6000 people.
"We're obviously hoping for capacity and it would've helped if we'd won (against UTC). But I think at least 5 to 6000. I know Widnes are bringing over 600 or 700 and they're certainly vocal and parochial fans. And there's always that French-English rivalry so whether people support Limoux or Carcassonne or UTC I think they're going to come to the game to support a French team against an English team".
After three years with the club, Morgan admits he's starting to look around for other opportunities. Ultimately, he'd like a job in the NRL, but he'd be just as happy trying his hand in the English game. Whichever way the cards fall, he'll certainly be missed by his current club. In three short years he's put together a side which belies it's part-time status and whose performances have maintained some interest in a French competition which would otherwise prove to be a one-horse race. And yet they will go into Sunday's match as clear underdogs. " We're going to have be on our game and the bounce of the ball is going to have to go our way a little bit. It's gonna be a great opportunity for our club to test ourselves against a Super League side and see where we're at. It will also be a good opportunity for a lot of individuals to test themselves against high quality players like Shane Millard, Owen Craigie, Gary Connolly and Mick Cassidy. They're all world class players".
It will no doubt be a tall order, but if Toulouse are to finish on top on Sunday they'll need one man firing on all cylanders. Former Newcastle half back James Wynne joined Morgan at Toulouse three years ago after seeing only limited game time behind Andrew Johns at the Knights, and in that time he's convinced his coach he can mix it with the best. "I think James Wynne, by far and away is the premier player in the French competition. I have no doubt he could handle Super League and NRL now. He's a much more mature player then when he first came here. He's a first class player and the fact that he's equally at home running, kicking, passing and defending makes him an all-round half back and a great leader".
Like the rest of the Toulouse players, Wynne will get his chance to showcase his talents this Sunday. In a boost for the club, the fixture has been chosen by the BBC as its Challenge Cup match of the day. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, the match won't be broadcast in the country where it's being played. A further sign that while the game in France is progressing, there's still a lot of work to be done.