Everything at stake in Amlin decider
May 19, 2011
Danny Care and Nick Evans celebrate victory over Stade Francais in 2008 © Getty Images
Harlequins and Stade Francais go toe-to-toe in the Amlin Challenge Cup on Friday, with both sides desperate to end their season on a high with silverware and a place at Europe's top table for next season.
Two disappointing domestic performances (Quins finished seventh in the Premiership, Stade a lowly 11th in the Top 14) scuppered any hopes the teams had of automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup, adding a big extra incentive to this clash at the Cardiff City Stadium, home ground of last season's Amlin winners, the Blues.
Both sides have a second avenue into the big one - Quins' league placing will get them in should Northampton beat Leinster in Saturday's Heineken Cup finale. Should Stade lose out in the final, a Saints win will see them through as the highest ranked club in the ERC European Rankings that failed to qualify through their domestic tournament.
The sides last met back in 2008, when two classic Heineken Cup Pool matches were played out at the Stade de France, complete with can-can girls, and a rain-drenched Stoop, with Quins narrowly coming out on top in both ties.
Conor O'Shea's Quins have found bite in their running game but remain inconsistent, with their Amlin semi-final battering of once-mighty Munster arguably their finest showing of the season. Stade overcame French opposition to book their final spot, beating Montpellier in the last eight and Clermont Auvergne in the semi-finals. Their coach, the Australian Michael Cheika, knows how to win in Europe - he coached Leinster to the Heineken Cup in 2009.
Harlequins - Player to Watch: Quins lost playmaker Nick Evans to injury midway through their win over Munster, but he's recovered to spearhead their charge. His running game and superb skills with ball in hand make the Londoners tick, with a dangerous back-three preying on his distribution. He also has good memories of this fixture - landing the winning drop-goal in their meeting at The Stoop three years ago.
Harlequins - Team News: O'Shea has named the same side that did for Munster, although there is one change among the replacements as Argentinian lock Tomas Vallejos sits out with a broken thumb. Peter Browne slots onto the bench.
Stade Francais - Player to Watch: England flanker James Haskell could be playing his last game for Stade and is desperate to secure a silver lining to a difficult season. As a former Wasps player, he won't mind a shot at Quins, either.
Stade Francais' James Haskell on the Amlin Challenge Cup Final%]
Stade Francais - Team News: Rodrigo Roncero returns at loose-head after escaping sanction following a citing, while Antoine Burban joins Haskell and skipper Sergio Parisse in the back-row. Julien Dupuy and Lionel Beauxis, who will join Toulouse next season, are paired at halfback. The composition of the bench remains unclear, with Cheika's back-row options, Pierre Rabadan, Mauro Bergamasco and Juan Manuel Leguizamon all jostling for position.
Key Battle: Beauxis is a very skilful player but prone to lapses, so Evans will hope to dominate the playmaking battle. Quins' fast-paced game is reliant on their All Black hitting top form and if he does then Stade could struggle.
Trivia: Quins lifted the Challenge Cup in 2001 and 2004 - remarkably, Stade are looking for their first European title this weekend. They have twice lost in the final of the Heineken Cup, to Leicester in 2001 and Toulouse in 2005.
Stats: The clubs have met six times in European competition. Stade have four wins to Quins' two.
"I know people say it's the Amlin Challenge, but if the boys could have played it last Tuesday they would have. We've a young team and we've played some brilliant rugby, but we haven't won close games, in a nutshell. We've the best defensive record, we've made more line breaks than anybody else, and that's the way we play." - Quins coach Conor O'Shea
"Winning the trophy would be nice, but getting the ticket to next season's Heineken Cup would be nicer." - Stade Francais boss Michael Cheika
Prediction: Quins to continue Stade's dismal season with a narrow win. This one could be a little cracker.
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