The Toulouse Spacers are the only remaining hope for an upset in this years Powergen Challenge Cup after defeating National League 2 club Doncaster Dragons last weekend. The French Elite 1 club is the only remaining non-ESL team to qualify for the quarterfinals, which are to be played on the last weekend of June.
Many have argued that changes to the Cup schedule have made it nearly impossible for a lower league or foreign team to upset the ESL opposition. In previous seasons, preliminary rounds were played much earlier in the year, thus enabling lesser teams to catch their professional rivals under-prepared after a long off-season. However the tournament is now spread throughout the entire season, ensuring ESL teams are better equipped for early games.
The quarterfinal draw will provide Toulouse with added confidence, with the club due to play Widnes at home. Currently Widnes is last on the ESL table, and has the poorest for and against differential in the competition. Widnes will also face Bradford in what will be a tough Superleague round game the weekend before the quarterfinal clash.
Toulouse enjoys a significant home ground advantage playing in the far warmer climate in the south of France, and is also buoyed by the announcement this week that the BBC will telecast the game live into England. The British television station only show two of the four games during the quarterfinal phase, and their decision to televise the game is seen as a significant boost not just for the club, but to French Rugby League generally.
What Toulouse coach and former Parramatta Eel Justin Morgan will be hoping is that his players are inspired by the Challenge Cup upsets of the past. The aura of the Cup is as much about the crowd pleasing underdogs as it is the champions. The most recent of these upsets occurred when the lowly Sheffield Eagles defeated Bradford in the 1998 Cup final at Wembley.
Although winning a final may seem beyond reach for Toulouse, a semi-final birth may not be beyond a team that will not doubt be playing the game with Grand Final intensity.