Harlequins were reunited with their favourite pen-pal yesterday, adding a riveting postscript to a letter that had French written all over it. Montferrand were in complete control and threatening to increase their lead in the dying stages when they fell on their sword.
If it's the Madejski Stadium and the final of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, it must be Quins. Three years ago they beat Narbonne in extra time, and yesterday they applied the coup de grâce with the final move of the match. The stadium clock was showing 80 minutes and 46 seconds when Simon Keogh rounded off Quins' best attack of the day to score at the posts. Andy Dunne's conversion completed the most improbable victory by a goal, a try and five penalties to two goals, three penalties and a drop goal.
While the London club celebrated their return to the Heineken Cup by soaking up the champagne, Montferrand's players, or at least some of them, were in tears. Next season Montferrand will again be consigned to Europe's second tier, and they have only themselves to blame.
They had regained the lead at 26-20, and after Gerald Merceron failed with two drop-goal attempts, either of which would have been the winner, they were driving remorselessly towards the Quins line when Raphael Chanal lost his head.
The centre, who was wearing 13, had already been shown a yellow card in the 62nd minute for punching Tani Fuga. On that occasion Quins failed to make any capital gains while Chanal was in the sin-bin, but he gave them another chance.
In the 78th minute Chanal dived recklessly into a ruck and the referee, Nigel Whitehouse, alerted to the offence by a touch judge, dealt the Frenchman another yellow, which was automatically converted into a red. Chanal tossed away his headband, and ultimately the match.
From the penalty, Quins were able to find an attacking position and for once kept the ball alive in a move that featured their danger men, George Harder and Ugo Monye, the latter slipping the match-winning pass to Keogh. Dunne screamed at the replacement centre to touch down under the posts.
"We are not the most talented side and we don't have the most firepower but we're fit, we have a great spirit and we refuse to give in," Mark Evans, the Quins coach, said. "You can go a long way on that. I wasn't thinking about next season's Heineken Cup but about winning this competition as a reward for a group of players who have worked really hard.''
About a third of the team are leaving or retiring, including, of course, the prop Jason Leonard. The world's most capped player came off the bench in the 72nd minute to join what looked like a lost cause in his last appearance for a club he joined 14 years ago.
The Parker Pen Challenge Cup may not have the same ring as the Webb Ellis Trophy but Leonard, a World Cup winner with England in Australia, was suitably chuffed nonetheless. Last night at a party at the Stoop he was able to down as many pints as he liked with a clear conscience. "Your last game is always special,'' he said, "but what was really great was to see everyone's reaction at the end. It was breathtaking.''
Almost as breathtaking as the manner of victory. Paul Burke, who is leaving for Munster, kicked four penalties to keep Quins in touch but otherwise had a poor game, and when he fluffed a kick in front of the posts on the hour he was replaced by Dunne.
Quins held an early lead when Gavin Duffy, following a cross-kick by Will Greenwood, exploited a fumble by Sebastien Kuzbik for a try after 17 minutes. The Montferrand forwards took a stranglehold and they hit the front when Olivier Azam was driven over in an unstoppable rolling maul.
Even when the flanker Marc Raynaud got a yellow card in the 24th minute, Quins were unable to make an impression against a side who repeatedly sent their forwards crashing down narrow channels. They took some stopping, and when the scrum-half Pierre Mignoni was the beneficiary of another powerhouse party-piece, it looked as if the inkwell had run dry for Quins.
However, never underestimate the French capacity for indiscipline. Quins didn't. "Montferrand concede an inordinate number of yellow and red cards,'' Evans said. "We talked about it, although we didn't go out there with the intention to niggle them.
"They are always likely to do something daft, and Chanal is a loose cannon. We knew he was a liability and I'm surprised they picked him. To beat us you've got to play for 80-odd minutes, and we have a habit of nicking games at the death.'' All in all it was quintessentially French, quintessentially Quins.
Montferrand 26 Harlequins 27
Tries: Azam, Mignoni; Tries: Duffy, Keogh
Cons: Flosch 2; Con: Dunne
Pens: Flosch 3; Pens: Burke 4, Dunne
Half-time: 16-14 Attendance: 13,123
Montferrand: A Flosch; A Rougerie, R Chanal, T Marsh (capt), S Kuzbik (S Viars, 59); G Merceron, P Mignoni; C Soulette (L Emanuelli, 72), O Azam, D Attoub, H Louw (E Pearce, 50), T Privat, M Raynaud, E Vermeulen (A Audebert, 50), O Magne.
Harlequins: G Duffy; G Harder, W Greenwood, M Deane (S Keogh, 55), U Monye; P Burke (A Dunne, 61), S Bemand; M Worsley (C Jones, 61), T Fuga, J Dawson (J Leonard, 72), S Miall, J Evans (B Davison, 67), P Sanderson, T Diprose, A Vos (capt).
Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).