Evans and Care repel Stade's siege engines

Stade Francais 10 Harlequins 15: Medieval pomp and Bastareaud the battering ram fail to crush Quins heroes
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was monumental, phenomenal and heroic. The pressure was enormous and the crowd was the biggest for any pool game in the Heineken Cup, and yet the French national stadium proved to be the graveyard of one of the biggest teams in France.

"It's right up there," said Dean Richards, when asked if this was Harlequins' best win in his time as director of rugby. "It's not just the defence we had but also the discipline. We could have given away penalty after penalty but we didn't. A lot of the boys grew up here.

"We most probably would have lost this game last year. It's ahugely important game and we played outstandingly well. We have a huge amount of talent and there are young boys out there. They are growing up quickly and will learn from matches like this."

Harlequins can hardly promise a bigger occasion, but they can prepare a right royal welcome in west London for the return encounter on Saturday. A quarter-final place beckons for a club that only three years ago survived relegation and fought their way back into the elite. Now they top Pool Four of Europe's premier competition.

Their returning internationals, Nick Easter, Danny Care and Ugo Monye, all put the experience of three straight England defeats behind them and produced performances of huge character. And this was a big deal.

Forget the national stadium, and think instead of the Circus Maximus. Before the match, in front of fans waving 20,000 free flags, we were offered a mediaeval pageant, 16 gymnasts, girls waving pink pom-poms and can-can dancers from the Moulin Rouge. All of this was presided over by Caesar and Cecil B De Mille rolled into one, Max Guazzini, a media magnate, of course. The pre-match jousting saw three men dragged 25m by their horses and four dumped summarily on their backsides – as well as one horse. All this was played out to emotionally charged music played at the maximum volume allowed by European law. The pièce de résistance was a trained eagle and a tableau representing Joan of Arc.

When the teams finally ran out Quins' light blue, magenta, French grey, chocolate, light green and black shirts managed to look flamboyant alongside the latest fashion outrage from Stade Français, whose current shirt is decorated with an Andy Warhol treatment of a portrait of a medieval princess, Blanche de Castille.

It took the home side less than two minutes to cross the Harlequins line, despite Juan Martin Hernandez botching the first kick-off with a sliced kick. That first crossing, like a bullocking attempt from the enormous centre Mathieu Bastareaud two minutes later, was not ratified by the television match official and Quins, relieved, got stuck into the business of settling themselves down.

Their pack never looked comfortable against Stade's props, Rodrigo Roncero, a niggler par excellence, and Sylvain Marconnet, but there was grit in the back line.

Before the game the Stade coach, the former Wallaby front-rower Ewen McKenzie, had complained that he had failed to find the balance and composition he wanted in training. This was evident in a back-line that looked vulnerable as Care, the incumbent England scrum-half, proved a problem for the Parisians' defence. It was his kick and chase that led to the first of Harlequins' tries – the Stade full-back, Djibril Camara, fumbled the ball and the Quins wing Tom Williams pounced.

Harlequins' former All Black stand-off, Nick Evans, converted and just over 10 minutes later things got better still for the visitors, after Camara had again been bundled off the ball. The centre Jordan Turner-Hall completed the try.

Nothing seemed to be working for Stade until, with five minutes of the half to go, they got into the Harlequins 22. Care decided that enough was enough and killed the ball and the referee, Alan Lewis, showed him a yellow card. Hernandez kicked the easy penalty.

But three points was no great reward for 40 minutes' hard work and there was some unease among the home supporters until, with Care still off the field, six minutes into the second half, Brian Liebenberg made his second appearance in a string of attacks and delivered a neat back-flip pass to Juan Manuel Leguizamon. The No 8 scored and the drums started beating with more urgency after Hernandez converted.

Stade had the majority of the possession and territory – for the last 15 minutes they camped in the Harlequins 22. But it was Quins who collected three points, through an Evans penalty. They then defended as if their lives depended on it.

"We will have to do exactly the same next week," said Richards. "This is one game of two. The importance of this game isn't the 76,000 people and the circus around it. It's about doing the same thing next week. We have to back it up with a win at the Stoop and getting through the group."

Stade Français: D Camara (G Bousses, 72); J Arias, M Bastareaud, B Liebenberg, J Saubade (M Gasnier, 19); J-M Hernandez, N Oelschig (A Albouy, 73); R Roncero, D Szarzewski (M Blin, 55), S Marconnet, P Vigouroux, S Taylor, S Parisse (capt), P Rabadan (Mauro Bergamasco, 55), JM Leguizamon.

Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Tiesi, J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; C Jones, T Fuga, M Ross, J Percival (G Robson, 62), J Evans, C Robshaw, N Easter, W Skinner (capt).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).

Comments