A try would have brought the French level, and the way Diego Dominguez had been potting penalties all afternoon, the winning conversion would have been a mere formality. But the referee, Clayton Thomas, blew his whistle just in time, French heads slumped, Martin Johnson's arms reached into the night and Leicester maintained a tenuous hold on their future in the Heineken European Cup.
French conspiracy theorists were given plenty of evidence by the constant whistling of Thomas, who could have penalised Leicester for the opening pass of the match, wrongly disallowed a try by Stade Francais for the same infringement and awarded two decisive, but harsh, penalties which finally turned the game the way of an increasingly desperate home team. The reputation of the French, tarnished by several incidents during the World Cup and further damaged by the two-year ban imposed over-night on Richard Nones of Colomiers for gouging, seemed to precede Stade Francais.
"We know that in Britain we have to play a game without mistakes," said Christophe Juillet, the impressive French No 8. "We tried to be very un- French today, we stayed very quiet, we didn't ask the referee to explain anything. Maybe next time we will be French again."
He had a point, but no one inside Welford Road cared too much. Their beloved Leicester are still in the hunt and for that they have to thank Tim Stimpson, who kicked five rock-solid penalties and added a try and a conversion to bring his personal tally to 22 points. Dominguez was equally impressive, scoring all bar five of his side's points. For long swathes of the afternoon, it became a personal duel.
No one expected anything other than a good old-fashioned rumble between two rugby powerhouses. Leicester's defeat by Leinster in their opening pool game hardly augured well for the strength of the English challenge on the return to the European trail. Dean Richards, the Leicester coach, dropped two Australian internationals, John Welborn and Pat Howard, and kept faith with the 19-year-old duo of Andy Goode and James Grindal at half-back.
Put the two CVs side by side and spot the difference: both come from King Henry VIII school in Coventry, which numbers David Duckham among its old boys, both played schools cricket for Warwickshire, furthered their education at Loughborough University, support Coventry City and joined the Tigers on the same day. Their one match on opposite sides led to complete confusion, a mistaken pass one to the other and an inevitable draw.
Richards clearly believes they come as a package but, with Austin Healey back fit again, it was an act of extreme faith to pair them in a match that Leicester dared not lose. Both will feel that little more grown up this morning.
Like Leicester, Stade Francais have taken time to find their form after the disruptions of the World Cup. With eight of their squad on international duty, their league record to the end of October read: played four, lost three, drawn one, which was an abject return for the French Cup holders and former champions, even without their chiefs. The recent appointment of their coach, Bernard Laporte, to succeed Jean-Claude Skrela at the head of the national team hardly helped their rehabilitation, though a 50-point thrashing of Aurillac last weekend heralded a belated return to form.
The pulsating finale did not disguise the mediocrity of much of a match dominated by the forwards and by the right boots of Stimpson and Dominguez. Leicester edged ahead early, thanks to the first of Stimpson's five penalties, and stayed there until 10 minutes from time. Apart from one brilliant sidestep by the quicksilver Chris-tophe Dominici, in itself worth the trip up the M1, it was Stimpson who provided the high spot of an otherwise tepid first half. Picking up the ball inside his own half, tight to the right touchline, the England full-back grub-kicked ahead into space, hacked on again and when Christophe Laussucq fumbled the clearance, Stimpson, by now having gained the momentum of an inter-city 125, careered on to score.
At half-time, Leicester had a handy eight-point cushion and when, transformed for a brief period into a passable imitation of the Fijians, Leon Lloyd sidestepped Dominici to score under the posts, it seemed all over. Not many sides claw back a 15-point deficit at Welford Road.
But this is not a vintage Leicester side. Instead of rolling over as so many French sides have done in the past, Stade Francais rolled up their sleeves and drove forward, lifted by the rugged exhortations of Juillet who, with his dishevelled hair and square jaw, has maintained the Bohemian pavement artist look once patented by Jean-Pierre Rives. A pushover try credited to Pieter de Villiers started the comeback. Sixteen unanswered points later, Stade Francais were ahead and the home crowd were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
The sight of Richard Cockerill, arriving like a bull terrier off the bench, gladdened hearts, and two more mighty hoofs by Stimpson re-established Leicester's advantage and the cheers at the final whistle.
Leicester: T Stimpson; A Healey, W Greenwood (P Howard, 40), L Lloyd, D Lougheed; A Goode, J Grindal; D Jelley (P Freshwater, 62), D West (R Cockerill, 70), G Rowntree, M Johnson, B Kay (J Welborn, 53), P Gustard, N Back, M Corry.
Stade Francais: A Gomes (N Burrows, 40); C Dominici, F Comba, T Lombard, N Raffault; D Dominguez, C Laussucq; S Marconnet, F Landreau, P de Villiers, D Auradou, H Chafffardon, D George (C Moni, 46), R Pool-Jones (M Lievremont, 58), C Juillet.
Referee: C Thomas (Wales).Reuse content