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Heineken Cup the spur for Quins' Euro title tilt

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Bryn Palmer | 10:00 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

For a club who has its sights firmly fixed on a third triumph in the European Challenge Cup this Friday, Harlequins' attitude to the final against Stade Francais at the Cardiff City Stadium might appear something of an anomaly.

Winners in 2001, launching a near decade-long dominance by English clubs, and again in 2004, both times against French opposition, Quins can certainly not be accused of giving the second-tier continental competition less than their full attention.

But above all else - the desire to end a seven-year wait for silverware, the chance to push international claims with a World Cup on the horizon - the prime motivation for victory over the cosmopolitan, pink-clad Parisian ensemble is obvious.

Put bluntly, that is to avoid playing in the same tournament next season.

The mouth-watering carrot of a place in the Heineken Cup awaits the winners, and it is that prospect which is driving on Quins more than any other.

"Obviously the aim is to move the club forward and to get some silverware would be great," says captain Chris Robshaw, who is also contesting one of the final back-row places in England's World Cup squad. "But myself and all the other players want to be playing in the Heineken Cup; that is where you find the best players in Europe. No disrespect to the Challenge Cup, but we want to be playing in the biggest competition."

Friday's opponents provide a stark reminder of what they are missing. Quins and Stade faced each other in the pool stages of the elite competition in 2007/08, with the French side comfortably winning both encounters.

But the following year, the two capital city slickers locked horns again in two of the most memorable group games of recent vintage.

The first saw Quins win 15-10 in front of 77,000 stunned fans at the Stade de France, which had witnessed some pre-match entertainment of epic extravagance (can-can dancing girls from the Moulin Rouge, medieval knights jousting on horseback, that sort of thing), all laid on by Stade's colourful president Max Guazzini.

Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans lands the injury-time drop-goal that beat Stade Francais in a dramatic Heineken Cup pool match at The Stoop in December 2008

Quins fly-half Nick Evans lands the injury-time drop-goal that beat Stade Francais in a dramatic Heineken Cup pool match at The Stoop in 2008. Picture: Getty

The on-field drama of the re-match at The Stoop was no less astonishing. With Quins trailing by a point, a final move of some 30 phases culminated five minutes into injury-time with their All Black fly-half Nick Evans scuffing over the most dramatic, and satisfying, drop-goal with the last kick of the game to snatch a 19-17 victory.

"It was one of those ridiculous games you just can't explain," Evans recalls. "Every
time I go home [to New Zealand] I sit down with my dad to watch it and I don't know how we did it. It was special, one of those freak games."

England number eight Nick Easter also remembers the Stade clashes as "definitely among the highlights of my club career", but points out "we only got to the quarter-finals though, didn't we?" And, infamously, that last-eight home defeat against Leinster is not remembered for the rugby, but merely the day the unsavoury stench of 'Bloodgate' seeped out.

Two years on though, Quins are thriving on their return to a big European stage. Their semi-final victory over two-time Heineken champions Munster in Limerick was both epic and historic, becoming only the second team - after Leicester in 2007 - to win a European match at the Irish province's Thomond Park fortress.

If the Amlin Challenge Cup lacks the glamour and stature of its big brother, the Heineken, the move to draft four sides who narrowly missed out on qualification from the elite competition's pool stages into the second-tier tournament at the quarter-final stage has given it added impetus.

After last year's stunning final victory by Cardiff Blues over Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon in front of 49,000 fans at Marseille's Stade Velodrome, Friday's affair at the 27,000-capacity Cardiff City Stadium may lack some of the ambience by comparison.

But it is more than just a tasty hors d'oeuvre for the main event down the road at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, when Leinster face Northampton in the Heineken Cup final.

Harlequins will have noted the Challenge Cup can act as a stepping stone to further glory. Wasps won it in 2003, and went on to lift the Heineken Cup a year later and again in 2007. More recently, Northampton won it in 2009 and two years on, have a shot at glory in the big one.

Win or lose, Quins' future looks bright, despite them lacking the financial clout and playing resources of Leicester, Northampton, Bath and Saracens.

Of the 11 games they lost in the Premiership this season, eight were by seven points or less, meaning they picked up the same number of bonus points (12) as table-toppers Leicester. When they put out something approaching a first-choice side, Quins - playing an enterprising and attractive brand of rugby - competed with everyone, even if they failed to close out some of those tight games.

But nine of their likely final line-up are 25 or under, and the England coaches will be keeping a close eye on Friday's proceedings.

The likes of centre George Lowe, prop Joe Marler, hooker Joe Gray and lock George Robson have all made rapid progress this term and are good bets for some Churchill Cup action with the Saxons next month, as are full-back Mike Brown and centre Jordan Turner-Hall. Danny Care, Easter and Robshaw are already senior squad citizens, with Lions wing Ugo Monye hoping to remind Martin Johnson and company that his return to top form is also worthy of recognition over the summer.

"We have some outstanding young players coming through," says director of rugby Conor O'Shea. "Over the next three or four years this team will get better and better."

Importantly, fly-half Evans - who has enjoyed a superb season - will be around to guide them for a couple more years yet, while another 30-something has been one of the revelations of the second half of the season.

Were it not for an injury to the outstanding Tom Guest in January, the re-acclimatisation of Samoan flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu to rugby union may not have acquired such momentum.

Maurie Fa'asavalu (right) celebrates Quins' semi-final victory over Munster with captain Chris Robshaw

Fa'asavalu (right) celebrates Quins' semi-final victory over Munster with lock George Robson. Pic: Getty

Having starred for his native country at the 2003 World Cup, he switched codes to rugby league aged 23 and enjoyed a successful seven years with St Helens, playing in four successive Grand Finals and winning caps for Great Britain and England after qualifying on residency grounds.

But Quins lured him back to the 15-a-side code last summer and, after coming into the side in February, he has remained a fixture in the back row, his physical presence and fearsome tackling ever more conspicuous as the season has unfolded.

"His impact off the pitch, as much as on it, has been the most striking," says O'Shea. "He is just an unbelievable professional. It is a cliché, but in terms of the way he prepares and analyses himself, he is a real student of the game. All the boys look up to him."

O'Shea tells a tale about when Fa'asavalu took his turn at a club ritual by singing 'Baa, Baa, Black Sheep' on the team bus, the response was reverential rather than withering. "Most players would get shouted down, but no-one gave him a hard time at all. We have a lot of young players and they all love him here."

That extends to veteran number eight Easter, who followed Fa'asavalu's initial progress at St Helens while he was playing for nearby Orrell in union's National League One.

"He has added a lot to our team," Easter observes. "He is a very explosive player. He makes a big impact, regularly; he is not one of these guys who makes a big hit and then you don't see them again for a while. His work-rate is fantastic, his tackling...he is a big ball-carrier, and does a lot of dog work around the ruck. I have been thoroughly impressed with his professionalism. He has worked his way into the side and in the second half of the season, he has been as important as anyone."

Such is his form that it would be a major surprise if Samoa did not ask him to reprise his 2003 World Cup feats at this year's global jamboree in September.

Quins will need more of the Samoan's controlled ferocity against a Stade side featuring the extravagantly gifted Italy captain Sergio Parisse - the finest number eight of his generation - and two of England's stand-out Six Nations acts, James Haskell and Tom Palmer, as well as a host of French and Argentine internationals.

Stade may have the bigger-name individuals, but they did not prosper when the going got tough in France this season, winning only two league games away from home and losing their last five in all to slump to 11th in the Top 14.

"You look through their squad and you think, 'how the hell are they in that position?'" said Easter warily. "You can't read anything into form with that sort of class and experience. No doubt it will come down to the last 10 minutes, and who handles that pressure experience best.

"I think this team has come a long way this year and what happened at Munster is something for this group to draw on. It is new ground for most of us [only Monye and departing prop Ceri Jones remain from the Quins side that won it in 2004], but you don't get many chances in club footy and we have to make it count."

Redemption will be a strong motivator for Stade, for whom another season without elite European rugby would be unthinkable.

But the suspicion is that when it comes to the crunch, the collective energy and esprit de corps of an emerging Quins side - which withstood everything the Thomond Park bear-pit could throw at them - will prevail once again.

You can follow me on Twitter for the latest on this weekend's two finals in Cardiff - http://twitter.com/#!/BBCBrynPalmer

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Nice blog Matt.

    I'm a Wasps fan but after a horrific season for us I would love for Northampton and Harlequins to take the top prizes back home here to English rugby.

  • Comment number 2.

    An English double at the weekend would be brilliant and it's good to see two of the teams that try to throw the ball around and play some fast, wide rugby making the finals. As a Quins fan, I feel the need to point out that's George Robson in the photo and not Chris Robshaw! Come on the Quins!

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for the name recognition Leader606!

    Re: Colin 2501. Apologies for the pic caption, that is clearly big George - future England lock? - and should now have been rectified. Agree it's good to have two English sides who play an attractive brand of rugby in the European finals. Think Quins have got a great chance of victory. Not so sure about Northampton, but I'll let you read that in a separate blog in the next day or two!

  • Comment number 4.

    Its amazing how big the impact of bloodgate had on Quins. Second in the premiership and heineken cup quarters one season and then dropping to 8th and not winning a single european match the next. All with a fairly similar sqaud. Good to see them on the way back up though.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's been a good season for us, we've settled on a really solid core XV (except for losing Camacho, shame he's been getting better all the time). We've not really been on the end of a hiding by anyone, we just need to learn how to close out tight games, something that will come as the squad gains in experience.

    I just hope we don't start losing all our players to England duty....many of them deserve it though!

 

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