EDINBURGH: Stade Francais finally got their hands on a European trophy as they beat Gloucester 25-17 to win the Challenge Cup at a rainswept Murrayfield on Friday.
It meant the French side had finally won a continental showpiece match after previously losing two European Cup finals and two in the second-tier Challenge, with Geoffrey Doumayrou’s try nine minutes from time the decisive score.
Victory was all the sweeter for a Stade side whose very existence was under threat this season until a proposed merger with Paris rivals Racing 92 fell through.
They subsequently failed to qualify for the Top 14 play-offs, having been crowned champions of France just two seasons ago.
The first half ended all square at 10-10 after Jonny May’s converted try and Billy Burns’s penalty for Gloucester were cancelled out by a Jules Plisson penalty and skipper Sergio Parisse’s converted try for Stade.
But Stade pulled away after the break.
“I’m very happy for the club, for the team. We really wanted to show we were solid and deserved this trophy,” said Italy No 8 Parisse.
Defeat saw Gloucester fail to qualify for the Champions Cup play-offs, with Stade already having booked their place in the knockout matches that will decide the last entrant into next season’s tournament.
For the two-time Challenge Cup winners, it also meant there was no flourish to a season that ended with Gloucester ninth in the 12-team Premiership.
Stade’s success on Friday was built on a dominant forward display and Gloucester boss David Humphreys admitted: “It’s very hard to play any sort of rugby when you have no ball, when your set-piece is under pressure and Stade put us under massive pressure.”
There was a controversial moment 11 minutes from time when the already substituted Rabah Slimani came back on in an echo of the prop’s disputed late return during France’s Six Nations win over Wales in Paris, which remains under investigation.
But Humphreys said: “That’s not the reason why we lost.”
Stade, with Australia scrum-half Will Genia pulling the strings, enjoyed the better initial field position.
But it was Gloucester who opened the scoring against the run of play in the 14th minute.
After some subline handling skill from Parisse, England wing May intercepted a pass from centre Jonathan Danty just outside his 22 and ran in unopposed from some 75 metres for a try under the posts.
Burns converted and minutes later extended the lead to 10-0 with a penalty.
France fly-half Plisson got Stade on the scoreboard with a superbly struck penalty from near halfway.
Stade’s fightback continued when Genia’s clever up and under was knocked back by lock Hugh Pyle near Gloucester’s line and Parisse pounced on the loose ball for a 32nd-minute try.
Plisson converted and the match was all square.
From the kick-off, Gloucester were a man down when captain and scrum-half Willi Heinz received a yellow card from Irish referee John Lacey for a head-high challenge on Plisson.
Heinz did not return in the second half after his sin-binning, with Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw taking his place.
Plisson then pushed a 40-metre penalty wide of the posts.
Stade’s back three were struggling under the high ball and scrum-half Laidlaw, recently called into the British and Irish Lions’ squad for their tour of New Zealand, produced a well-judged kick that caused chaos but Gloucester fullback Tom Marshall just failed to touch down before the ball went dead.
Stade, just as Gloucester had done, then struck with an intercept try.
Djibril Camara grabbed a loose pass and then found Danty, who went in at the left corner.
Plisson missed the conversion but Stade were 15-10 up.
Doumayrou then gave Stade breathing space when, after he was missed by opposing centre Mark Atkinson, he scythed his way through Gloucester’s defence.
“We defended magnificently for large parts of the game but you know that against a team as good as Stade they are going to slip a tackle if we can’t keep the ball,” said former Ireland fly-half Humphreys.
Replacement Morne Steyn converted and the South African added a penalty to put Stade 25-10 up with just five minutes left.
Ross Moriarty crossed in the 79th minute but the Wales flanker’s try was too little, too late for Gloucester. --AFP