European Rugby Champions Cup play-off final: Northampton 23-22 Stade Francais
|European Rugby Champions Cup Play-Off final|
|Northampton (9) 23|
|Tries: Foden, Tuala Cons: Mallinder 2 Pens: Mallinder 3|
|Stade Francais (22) 22|
|Tries: Vuidravuwalu, Sinzelle, Camara Cons: Plisson 2 Pens: Plisson|
Northampton came back from 22-6 down and overcame the sending off of Tom Wood to seal a place in next season's European Champions Cup with a thrilling play-off final win over Stade Francais.
Saints conceded three tries in the first half but battled back to 22-16.
It looked all over when Rory Hutchinson was sent to the sin bin, before Wood saw red with seven minutes left.
But Ahsee Tuala shook off three men to score and Harry Mallinder converted to seal a stunning victory.
Northampton will now join the top six sides from this season's Premiership, the seven highest-ranked Pro12 teams, and the French Top 14's top six in Europe's top club rugby competition.
A terrible start but superb finish
It was a nightmare first half for the Saints, who fell 10-0 behind early on to Waisea Vuidravuwalu's try and Jules Plisson's conversion and penalty.
Quick thinking from Will Genia from a penalty and a driving run from Meyer Bosman set up Jeremy Sinzelle to score the French side's second try.
That soon became three when Saints' player of the year Louis Picamoles dropped a pass five metres from his own line and from the scrum Genia darted towards the line before passing to Djibril Camara to cross.
Mallinder scored three penalties for the home side, but it still left them with a second-half mountain to climb.
Their cause was aided when Remi Bonfils' attempt to trip Mallinder earned him 10 minutes in the sin-bin, during which Ben Foden broke through to score a converted try.
When Hutchinson was sin-binned on 62 minutes for taking Genia out in the air before captain Wood's dismissal for a stamp on Camara's head in the ruck, Saints seemed to have lost their chance.
But with 13 men Saints still piled forward and a wonderful 20-metre pass from Mallinder saw Tuala twist and twirl through three men to touch down before the former calmly landed the touchline conversion to give them a one-point lead they held to the end.
Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder:
"I don't think anybody can see Tom [Wood] putting his foot on the opponent, it was an unfortunate one and it certainly wasn't deliberate, but we will have to see what the disciplinary panel says.
"We actually played a lot of good rugby in the first half. We had more carries and made more metres than them but when we lost the ball, they were clinical.
"We couldn't just go wide as they have got some good outside backs, we had to go through them. Even when we were down to 13 men we stuck at that.
"The crowd were magnificent; I have not heard them as noisy as that for a long time."
Stade director of rugby Gonzalo Quesada:
"The defeat is super tough, but we should be quite proud of ourselves, we gave everything we had."
Northampton: Tuala, Foden, Tuitavake, Burrell, North, Mallinder, Groom, A. Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Lawes, Day, Harrison, Wood, Picamoles.
Replacements: Olver for Tuala (73), Hutchinson for Tuitavake (53), Dickson for Groom (66), Ma'afu for A. Waller (66), Haywood for Hartley (66), Denman for Brookes (60), Ratuniyarawa for Day (56), Gibson for Picamoles (56).
Sin Bin: Hutchinson (61), Wood (63).
Stade Francais: Camara, Nayacalevu, Doumayrou, Danty, Sinzelle, Plisson, Genia, Zhvania, Bonfils, Alo-Emile, Alberts, Gabrillagues, Burban, Lakafia, Ross.
Replacements: Steyn for Camara (64), Daguin for Genia (76), Slimani for Zhvania (51), De Giovanni for Alberts (61).
Not Used: Burden, Melikidze, S. Macalou, M. Bosman.
Sin Bin: Bonfils (41).
Ref: John Lacey (Ireland).