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Stade Francais Paris will be looking to complete a dramatic turn-around in their fortunes at Franklin’s Gardens by returning to the Champions Cup next season with a win over Northampton Saints.
There was a point during the season when it looked as though the club might not be playing at all next season when there was talk of an amalgamation with Parisian neighbours Racing 92. But those plans were quickly aborted and Stade Francais are now doing all they can to join Racing in the Champions Cup next winter.
The Champions Cup Play-Off final really does pitch two of European club rugby’s big names against each other for the 20th and final place in next season’s tournament. Saints, European Cup winners in 2000 and Challenge Cup champions in 2009 and 2014, will have home advantage, but Stade Francais have proved recently they can win on the road.
They went to the Principality Stadium and beat the hitherto unbeaten Ospreys in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals in the Welsh capital before marching on Edinburgh and beating Gloucester Rugby in the final at BT Murrayfield.
That ended their long wait for a European title after appearances in two European Cup and two Challenge Cup finals. With that monkey off their back, they then comfortably beat Cardiff Blues 46-21 to reach the Play-Off final.
No wonder then that departing director of rugby Gonzalo Quesada firmly believes that his club’s place “is in the Champions Cup, not in the Challenge.” He also knows it will be “very complicated for us at Northampton.”
The Saints marched into the final with a 21-15 triumph over Connacht Rugby in which young Harry Mallinder played a starring role at outside half with a first minute try and 16 points overall. British & Irish Lion in waiting, Courtney Lawes, picked up the Heineken Man of the Match award, though, for a power-packed performance up front.
The key to securing a ninth successive season in the top-flight in Europe will be subduing the Parisian pack, who have made life difficult for the Ospreys, Bath, Gloucester and the Blues in their recent run of victories. French No 8 Louis Picamoles will be critical in that process, especially if he can get the chance to charge at the visiting defence.
Tom Wood’s return to the starting XV to skipper the side will add to Saints’ back row power and it will be interesting to see how Stade cope without the considerable presence of Sergio Parisse.
It is a big game with a massive prize. Will there be seven TOP14 clubs in the Champions Cup next season or seven Premiership sides?
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Northampton Saints defied Tom Wood’s sending off to secure a dramatic 23-22 comeback victory over Stade Francais and seal the 20th place in next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup.
Stade – who were crowned European Rugby Challenge Cup winners just two weeks ago – played some scintillating rugby before the break to take control of this play-off final clash.
Back three trio Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, Jeremy Sinzelle and Djibril Camara were the men to cross, and Northampton's task got even harder when Wood was dismissed for making contact with the head of Camara with his boot in the second half.
Prior to their skipper's sending off, Saints had got back into the game through a Ben Foden try and full-back Ahsee Tuala added their crucial second when they were down to 13 to move one point ahead.
It was an advantage they managed to hang on to as Harry Mallinder's 13 points from the tee ensured they came from 22-9 down to book a slot in the 2017-18 Champions Cup's pool stages.
Stade, meanwhile, will have to hope for a repeat of their Challenge Cup success next term.
In the Northampton sunshine, Gonzalo Quesada's Stade showed no signs of tiredness following a long season as they started with a bang to move 15-3 up.
It just took a couple of minutes for the French giants to open the scoring. A strong scrum gave Stade the platform for a flowing backs move which saw Camara gallop down the wing.
The ball was then popped up to scrum-half Will Genia whose pass inside allowed Vuidarvuwalu to finish.
Jules Plisson converted and then added a penalty soon after to leave Franklin's Gardens stunned.
Teimana Harrison hit back for Saints with a solo break and Mallinder got Northampton on the board with a penalty, but it wasn't along before Stade's electric backs showed what they could do.
The excellent Genia was again the creator, his quick tap penalty gave Meyer Bosman – who had replaced Jonathan Danty – the opportunity to put the flying Sinzelle into the corner.
Plisson missed the conversion and Mallinder responded with his second penalty, but Northampton felt a sense of injustice when John Lacey failed to award an advantage which would have seen Tuala cross following a Stade knock on. Quesada's men then added insult to injury.
It was a simple score, Genia going blind from the back of a scrum and Camara crossing for Stade's third.
Plisson added the extras and although Mallinder kicked a third penalty after missing with one effort, Saints turned around 13 points behind and with it all to do.
No doubt given a half-time rocket by director of rugby Jim Maillinder, Northampton started the second period with a bang and soon had a man advantage. Fly-half Mallinder's sprint towards the line was only halted by a trip from Remi Bonfils, for which the Stade hooker received a yellow card.
It allowed Saints to strike, Nic Groom's short pass finding Foden who dived over under the posts.
Mallinder added the simple extras and with their scrum now well on top, Northampton were the game's dominant force. Bonfils returned to the field and prop Rabah Slimani and No 8 Sergio Parisse were introduced to shore up the Stade pack, but the visitors were still determined to play in wide areas.
Northampton's numerous handling errors didn't help their cause and although the game was now much tighter, the home side were the next to go down to 14 when replacement Rory Hutchinson was sin binned for taking out Genia in the air when trying to get on the end of a Mallinder chip.
It then got even worse for Saints when Wood saw red for making contact with the head of Camara. The Saints skipper was angry at the decision, but his leaving of the field seemed to galvanise the home side.
Against all the odds they kept the ball and Mallinder's perfectly floated pass found its way to full-back Tuala who seemed to brush off cramp to make his way over the line.
Mallinder nailed the touchline conversion to put Northampton ahead for the first time and that was enough for them to seal victory as Stade ran out of puff despite their numerical supremacy and failed to score in the second half.
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