Tigers edge Stade Francais at Welford Road
April 1, 2007
Tom Varndell pounced for a late winner
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Leicester kept alive their hopes of an unprecedented trophy treble by stunning French Championship leaders Stade Francais 21-20 to book a place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.
Substitute Tom Varndell's 72nd-minute try, which was converted by fly-half Andy Goode, sent Tigers through to a last-four appointment with Welsh challengers Llanelli Scarlets at Walkers Stadium in three weeks' time. Leicester's victory also means England will have a record three clubs in the semi-finals after Northampton shocked Biarritz and booked a clash against 2004 European champions Wasps.
But France, despite their national team winning this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship, have failed to produce a representative in the penultimate knockout round. The Tigers are also on course for a Guinness Premiership play-off place, and they will contest the EDF Energy Cup final against the Ospreys at Twickenham on April 15.
But they left it late to send Stade spinning out of Europe, taking charge just when it looked as though fly-half David Skrela - who slotted four penalties and a drop-goal - would steer the Parisians through.
Full-back Juan Martin Hernandez, the game's outstanding back, scored a first-half try, but Varndell came up trumps when it mattered following an early touchdown by Seru Rabeni. Goode kicked 11 points. Leicester had lost four out of seven previous Heineken Cup meetings against Stade, but their pre-match mood was lifted by skipper Martin Corry recovering from an elbow problem that forced him off during last Saturday's EDF Energy Cup semi-final victory over Sale Sharks. And Corry went on to deliver a towering display.
Stade were without injured forwards Sylvain Marconnet, Dimitri Szarzewski and David Auradou, while Italy flanker Mauro Bergamasco missed the sold-out tie through suspension. Leicester started brightly, with Alesana Tuilagi putting his team on the front foot through a crunching tackle on Stade centre Stephane Glas, and Tigers built from Tuilagi's physical presence to score inside three minutes.
He smashed through Stade's midfield defence - only a Christophe Dominici ankle-tap slowed his momentum - but Leicester recycled possession quickly and full-back Geordan Murphy sent an unmarked Rabeni over. Goode failed to land the conversion, but Stade cut the deficit through a Skrela penalty before they went ahead courtesy of some woeful Tigers defence.
Centre Dan Hipkiss missed a first tackle on Hernandez, and although the Argentinian full-back kept going he could not believe his luck when Murphy and Tuilagi's combined effort failed to stop him and he enjoyed an unopposed run home. It was a soft try for Tigers to concede, yet two Goode penalties in three minutes edged Leicester ahead, the second strike arriving after Stade flanker Remy Martin was sin-binned for killing possession.
Tigers tighthead Julian White was penalised for a stamp on Rodrigo Roncero, and Skrela slotted an equalising strike. Skrela drew first blood in the second period, landing a 35-metre penalty that Goode matched seven minutes later before Tigers head coach Pat Howard took off try-scorer Rabeni and sent on speedster Varndell.
Rabeni's fellow wing Tuilagi remained Leicester's principal attacking threat, and he looked certain to score when the Tigers midfield backs freed him in space. In Hernandez though, he met his match.
As Tuilagi went for the corner, so Hernandez stood firm and barged the 18-stone Tigers powerhouse into touch, and within five minutes Stade went back in front through Skrela's fourth successful penalty. Stade efficiently withstood a spell of concerted Leicester pressure, and a capacity 17,400 crowd sensed a golden opportunity had gone.
Skrela then moved Stade six points clear when he rifled over a 40-metre drop-goal, leaving Leicester with it all to do entering the final 10 minutes of a fiercely tough contest.
Tigers needed a spark of invention and Hipkiss duly provided it, dancing inside and outside Stade's blindside defence to find Varndell in support, and he emphatically finished an inspired passage of play. Goode's simple conversion put Leicester one point in front, and they did just enough to preserve that nerve-shredding advantage, despite Skrela and Hernandez both attempting long range drop-goal shots.