Harlequins knew they had to win the Amlin Challenge Cup title to avoid a further stint in the competition – such is the way of it in European rugby – and even though they were outplayed for virtually the whole of a one-sided second half last night, they somehow found a way of doing it.
Gonzalo Camacho, their Argentinian wing, scored the only try of the final in the 81st minute, latching onto a clever sliding kick towards the right corner from the England scrum-half Danny Care, and Nick Evans nailed a wickedly difficult conversion to earn them qualification for the elite Heineken Cup tournament next term.
As the teams adopted their kick-off formations in downtown Cardiff, the thought occurred that the game would have been better suited to Carnaby Street. The Londoners were clad kaleidoscopically, as per usual, while the Parisians went for a nice little flowery pink number. Happily, there was nothing of the posing parlour about the early exchanges as the Harlequins forwards tore into their opponents. Evans was presented with two first-quarter penalty opportunities as a consequence, and the New Zealander accepted both.
Yet the All Black outside-half's opposite number was in equally decent nick when it came to putting boot to ball. Lionel Beauxis is no racehorse – rather, the word "carthorse" tends to be used in his connection – but he is undoubtedly one of the world's great tactical kickers. He kept his side in touch from the tee while hurting Quins out of hand, and even though Evans kicked a third goal following a deliberate knock-on by Djibril Camara, the French side were only three points adrift at the break.
By then, their Italian maestro Sergio Parisse was dipping deep into his box of tricks – an off-load here, a grubber kick there, a dangerous run on the arc somewhere else. Within nine minutes of the restart, his multi-faceted brilliance had produced tangible results, first for Beauxis, who squared the argument with a third penalty, and then for the blunt-instrument centre Mathieu Bastareaud, who surprised everyone, including himself, by dropping a delicate goal off his left foot.
Stade Français were running the show now. Parisse's principal lieutenant, the former Leicester scrum-half Julien Dupuy, used his front-foot advantage to give Care a tutorial in game management and had it not been the odd fumble in the Parisian midfield, Quins would have been broken before the hour. As it was, they reached that juncture a mere six points to the bad, their retreating scrum having conceded a fourth penalty to Beauxis.
Camara, distinctly rapid on the left wing, might have decided it a minute or so into the final quarter, but he overcooked his chip to the line. Quins badly needed to maximise their good fortune: woundingly, Evans hooked a 42-metre shot at the sticks.
Although he made amends from shorter range a few minutes later, Stade were the ones posing all the threats – not least from deep, with the full-back Martin Rodriguez dropping a goal from the best part of 50 metres, seemingly to win the game. The Parisians did not bargain for the Camacho-Evans double act, however, and the sense of shock will remain with them for a very long time.
Scorers: Harlequins: Try Camacho. Conversion Evans. Penalties Evans (4). Stade Francais: Penalties Beauxis (4). Drop goals Bastareaud, Rodriguez.
Harlequins: M Brown; G Camacho, G Lowe (R Chisholm, 78), J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu (W Skinner, 62), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Stade Français: M Rodriguez; J Arias, M Bastareaud, G Bousses, D Camara; L Beauxis, J Dupuy; R Roncero, R Bonfils, D Attoub, T Palmer, P Pape, J Haskell, A Burban (J M Leguizamon, 40), S Parisse (capt).
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).