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The big clubs join Rugby League's Challenge Cup this weekend but the most compelling tie involves the smallest survivor, Cumbrian amateurs Wath Brow Hornets, who visit Toulouse.

International travel is the latest episode in the odyssey of the club from the village of Cleator Moor who left their county league to join the British Amateur Rugby League Association's national conference less than three years ago. "The players and coaches decided they wanted to give it a go," recalls John Curwen, club chairman.

Their trajectory is arguably the league's most spectacular display of upward mobility since the early 1950s, when fellow Cumbrians Workington won both Challenge Cup and Championship within six years of turning professional. Hornets have won two consecutive promotions, are in strong contention for the Conference Premiership title, are current holders of Barla's National Cup and have beaten two professional teams in the Challenge Cup.

Most such irruptions into sporting elites involve rich backers and aggressive player recruitment. Not here. Mark Deans, who travelled regularly from Wigton, 40 miles away, before signing professionally with Whitehaven, counted as a rare and exotic import.

Curwen says: "Our good fortune is that we have a group of lads who grew up together, have been playing together for years, mostly work in the same place - British Nuclear Fuels - and who stick together. If a few decide after a game that they fancy going into Whitehaven, they'll all go. There's that sort of spirit."

Four players have turned pro in the past year but Curwen says: "We're delighted to see them getting the chance. That's what amateur clubs are for." Nor do losses to the paid game show signs of arresting Hornets' progress. They still have Barla Player of the Year Paul Davidson at prop and they are still "a pretty young side". They will need youthful vigour over the next three weeks with eight games to play, including Cup and Premiership meetings with Leigh Miners, their most dangerous title rivals.

Curwen, a member since 1967, accepts that such success is unlikely to be maintained: "Success goes in cycles and it'll be somebody else's turn. But I think we've got another two or three years with this team."

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