A gutsy Harlequins snatched a dramatic 19-18 victory over Stade Francais in their Amlin Challenge Cup Final clash at Cardiff City Stadium.
A 77th minute conversion from man of the match Nick Evans, following a last-gasp try from winger Gonzalo Camacho, saw the Premiership side edge out their French rivals and complete a hat-trick of victories in the competition - but more importantly, claim a place in next season's Heineken Cup.
A commanding second-half performance had seen Stade Francais take control of the contest with the kicking exploits of fly-half Lionel Beauxis, centre Mathieu Bastareaud and fullback Martin Rodriquez combining to put the Top 14 giants on course for their first European triumph. But Quins refused to concede defeat and despite having been dominated for the vast majority of the second period, they dug deep to conjure the match-winning score and claim a stunning victory.
Stade's euro hopes now rest with Northampton as a win for the Saints against Leinster in tomorrow's Heineken Cup finale will see them claim the last available place due to their European Rugby Cup ranking. But should Leinster win, then their Irish rivals Connacht would join Europe's elite for the first time.
Quins were the more assured of the two sides in the opening exchanges, with their industry rewarded with the first penalty of the game on five minutes that Evans slotted with ease. Stade raised their game in response but got little change out of the Quins defence and, as a result, tempers threatened to flare.
Bastareaud and flanker James Haskell opted for a direct route in the hope of forcing an opening and while they were largely frustrated by a Quins defence led by inspirational No.8 Nick Easter, they earned a long-range penalty that Beauxis landed from fully 50m to level the scores and fire a warning to their English rivals.
However, they were not on level terms for long, with a great break from blindside flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu splitting the Stade line in a move that resulted in Evans' second successful kick after the French side had infringed in their efforts to snuff out the danger.
Stade continued to probe but suffered from a lack of precision, while a powerful run from Quins tight-head James Johnston soon had them scurrying back inside their own 22. Beauxis' boot relieved the pressure with a great kick finding touch five metres from the Quins line but Quins were in no mood to concede with fullback Mike Brown finding an excellent touch of his own moments later.
Rodriguez was then wayward with an ambitious drop goal attempt before Quins enjoyed much more success with ball in hand. Brown made the initial break and sped into the Stade 22 but his support was slow in coming and they had to settle for a penalty. Sensing the momentum was with them, the kick went to the corner but Stade snaffled the ball and cleared only for a deliberate knock on from winger Djibril Camara to gift Evans a chance to notch his third penalty of the game.
Stade No.9 Julien Dupuy conjured a chance on the half hour but his chip through into the 22 was swept up by Brown who caught the eye throughout. Dupuy's opposite number Danny Care went a little closer to scoring on his next foray into Stade territory with his pace creating the opening but centre George Lowe was hauled down as he loomed up in support.
The holes continued to appear with Stade No.8 Sergio Parisse the next to ghost through and his mazy run was brought to an end just short of the line by Evans. But the Quins defence were caught offside as they desperately re-grouped with the end result a simple penalty for Beauxis that brought his side to within three at the break.
Bastareaud and centre partner Guillaume Bousses conjured what appeared to be a great scoring opportunity in the early stages of the second half only to be called back for a forward pass. Quins raised the tempo in an attempt to keep pace with a revitalised Satde side and another break from the lively Care promised much before a costly turnover. Bastareaud looked to exploit the gift but appeared to be tackled late having hacked the ball through into space. However, it was soon forgotten as further pressure led to Beauxis' third penalty that brought his side back to level terms.
Quins played themselves into trouble again a few moments later as Stade continued to turn the screw. A scrum on the Quins 22 handed Stade an excellent attacking opportunity and they peppered the Premiership side before a drop goal from the unlikely source of Bastareaud gave Stade the lead for the first time in the game.
A little more urgency from Quins brought some joy but bordered on desperation at times as they struggled for composure. Luckily for Quins, Easter was not rattled and popped up at the right place at the right time to prevent a near certain score for Stade winger Julien Arias. But Stade were looking hungry and pressure at scrum time enabled Beauxis to add to his tally. And it could have been worse for Quins had Camara's kick ahead into space not beaten him into touch a few minutes later.
Some timely industry from Camacho and Lowe gave Stade something to think about in defence but their hard-earned penalty was pulled wide of the posts by Evans in a rare error. Handed a chance to atone moments later, the Kiwi made no mistake to bring his side back to within three points.
A high tackle from Stade lock Tom Palmer on Brown provided Quins with another attacking platform but the lineout and opportunity was lost. The see-saw nature of the game continued with an electric burst from Arias taking his side deep into Quins' 22 only for veteran prop Rodrigo Roncero to spill the ball under pressure. A creaking Quins scrum held firm long enough for the ball to be cleared but it soon came sailing back back between the posts thanks to a superb long-range drop goal from Rodriguez. And the game appeared to be slipping rapidly from Quins' grasp when Stade were awarded another penalty only for Beauxis to hand them a reprieve by pulling his effort wide.
Quins needed no further encouragement and they soon pounced for the decisive score. Prop Joe Marler earned some hard yards up the middle before the ever-influential Care exploited some space on the Stade 22. His decision to put boot to ball with a grubber kick into the corner was a gamble but it paid off with Camacho winning the foot race to claim a well-worked try. Quins still trailed by a point - but not for long. Evans held his nerve to land the conversion from out wide and take his side to the brink of victory.
A knock on at the re-start gave Stade a scrum and a final chance to rescue the game but a succession of questionable re-sets sapped their sting and a costly knock on from Bastareaud finally ended their challenge.