Rugby Union: Farcical French hand it to Harries

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Harlequins 11 Montferrand 9

Try: Harries Pen: Merceron

Pens: Schuster 2 Drops: Merceron, Viers

Half-time: 11-0 Attendance: 2,633

WHEN MONTFERRAND ran on to the unfamiliar, not to say bleak, landscape of The Stoop, the man in charge of the sound system played "Waterloo" by Abba. It hardly seemed appropriate considering that the French club were the overwhelming favourites to top their Heineken Cup pool while Harlequins had not registered a victory.

Cue Harlequins, as perverse as ever, to perform at their heroic best. There was only one try in this extraordinary encounter and what a classic it was. Classic in terms of cock-ups, that is.

If the French were not in tears at the end they should have been. The try came in the 26th minute and it put Harlequins in the mood for something that generally speaking is totally alien to their nature: a gutsy, committed rearguard action.

First the try. As French farces go this one was world class. Gerald Merceron, the Montferrand captain, had just seen a penalty attempt held up by the wind when his opposite number, Gareth Rees, despite mis- kicking a clearance, somehow found touch. Inside his 22, Arnaud Costes thought he had executed a quick throw-in.

The fact that it was nowhere near straight clearly confused Merceron, who proceeded to knock the ball on then waited for the whistle. It never came. The referee played advantage and Quins took it.

Daren O'Leary hacked the ball on and, although he was impeded, Jerome Morante, who had just come on as a replacement for the injured full-back Nicolas Nadau, seemed utterly perplexed by the situation and made no more than a half-hearted attempt to clear. While he was flapping his arms around, Huw Harries picked up the ball and scored one of the softest and daftest tries in the history of professional rugby.

Montferrand, who had hammered Cardiff 46-13, began as if they were enjoying a training session. They threw out more passes in the opening quarter than Harlequins had managed all season but failed to exploit several promising openings.

Aside from the try, the first half was notable for two striking conflagrations. First Garrick Morgan flattened the unfortunate Costes with a well delivered right hook. After consulting his touch judge, referee Huw Lewis issued Morgan with a yellow card, and the giant Australian lock can consider himself fortunate not to have received a more severe punishment.

Then Costes was involved again, this time in a wrestling match with Gareth Llewellyn, and both combatants received yellow cards. This was a particularly good sign that Harlequins were not going to go quietly and meekly, for Llewellyn is to violence what the French are to Aberdeen Angus.

Transformed by the try, Quins actually managed to mount a few attacks, the most promising featuring O'Leary, who was late-tackled by Xavier Sadourny. Rees failed with the penalty, as he had with the conversion, and when Quins entrusted John Schuster with the goal-kicking duties, the centre was on target with two penalties to give his side a lead of 11-0 at half- time.

With the strong wind at their backs, Montferrand duly set about chipping away at Quins' lead. Merceron landed a penalty and a drop goal but failed with several other attempts.

Even more crucial, however, was a magnificent try-saving tackle by Peter Mensah on the international wing Sebastien Viars. When Viars dropped a goal eight minutes from time to narrow the deficit to two points, it still looked odds on for a French win, but the Harlequins' mighty defence held firm. The pity is that only 2,653 supporters were present to witness one of Quins' finest last-ditch stands.

Montferrand, who are sponsored by Michelin, returned home wondering how they had managed to lose to the quintessential under-achievers. But this is Harlequins all over. Even more perversely, they pulled off one of the unlikeliest of victories in the absence of their figurehead, Zinzan Brooke. In his absence the hooker Tom Murphy did an inspired job.

As for Montferrand, who claim love of sport and team spirit are more important than financial investment, there was little evidence of those beliefs yesterday. This is one performance that will not be featuring in the Michelin Guide.

Harlequins: D O'Leary; J Keyter, D Officer, J Schuster, P Mensah; G Rees, H Harries; J Leonard, T Murphy (capt), P Graham, G Morgan, G Llewellyn (S White-Cooper, 67), R Jenkins (C Sheasby, 67), A Leach, P Sanderson.

Montferrand: N Nadau (J Morante, 21); S Viars, J Ngaumo, J-L Sadourny, J Marlu; G Merceron (capt), A Troncon; E Menieu, O Azam (Y Pedrosa, 57), P Burnell, D Barrier, O Merle (J Thion, 57), A Costes, D Gabin (E Lecomte, 57), O Magne.

Referee: H Lewis (Wales).