Rarely has Franklin’s Gardens played host to a game like this. There were tries, turnovers, scintillating play, desperate defence, yellow cards and a red card that turned the game in a way no one could have predicted.
But when all was said and done the Saints had overcome Stade Francais to confirm Champions Cup for a ninth successive season.
Against Connacht the Saints had taken an early lead. But this time it was Stade who struck immediately, showing the attacking prowess that has seen them not just win the European Rugby Challenge Cup but also come within a whisker of finishing in the Top 14 play-off positions with an outstanding run of results.
On its own the scrum wheel would not normally be that much of a danger, but Saints were wheeled towards the Church’s Stand touchline and Will Genia got the ball out quickly to take the home pack out of the game.
Play went quickly across to the far side of the pitch and Stade’s pacy backs took the ball into the home 22. Saints scrambled, but Genia was not held in a tackle and quickly got to his feet to find Waisea Vuidarvuwalu and put the winger over for his 18th try of the season.
Jules Plisson added the conversion and a penalty a couple of minutes later to calm Stade’s nerves, but if there were any thoughts that the game would settle down were quickly cast aside as the action intensified throughout the opening quarter.
For Saints Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison both made eye-catching breaks, while Stade’s number 12 Jonathan Danty had a clear run down the left touchline after George North had slipped an offload infield while he was being hustled into touch.
There were turnovers and tackles, line breaks and interceptions, and there was a welcome minute-long break at the end of the opening quarter while Harry Mallinder lined up a penalty shot at goal.
There was no mistake from the fly half and Saints were on the score board, but while both the team, and the supporters in the sunlit Gardens, were both putting in plenty of effort it was Stade who were scoring the tries.
Again it was Genia who made the vital intervention, taking a quickly tapped penalty to wrongfoot the defence and create the space for Jeremy Sinzelle to cross in the corner.
It was opportunism at its finest, but Stade were showing plenty of susceptibility, too. Nafi Tuitavake and Ahsee Tuala both had good breaks, and Tuala had a try ruled out after Djibril Camara had made a mess of catching a Nic Groom box kick.
The ball went forward, but Dylan Hartley’s offload to Tom Wood hit the deck. Nevertheless play went on, Stade whipped the ball out and when the ball hit the deck Tuala scooped it up to go over for what he thought was a crucial score.
But the whistle went for a Saints scrum, and while the decision was correct given the earlier double-fumble the positioning was questionable to say the least.
Saints did have the consolation of getting the next points thanks to a Mallinder penalty, but five minutes later they were another converted try behind and again it was the Wallaby wizard at scrum-half Genia who sparked Stade into life.
A chip at a ruck put Saints under pressure close to their own line, and when Louis Picamoles fumbled a pass Genia took two defenders out with his determination to keep the ball alive, feeding Camara for the score.
The crowd thought the ball had gone forward, but the replays showed that while the full back was in front the pass was fine and the score stood.
Stade had had three sights of the whitewash and three tries to their name. Saints meanwhile were getting points, but they were only penalties, and the teams turned around with a 13-point deficit.
Saints needed to strike soon after half-time, and they came within five frustrating metres of doing so. Mallinder made a superb break through the middle, and when Remi Bonfils was yellow carded for tripping the fly half the ball was sent to the corner. Saints won the lineout and play came infield, but just when patience would have been the better virtue there was an offload too many and the ball hit the deck.
Stade had escaped that time, but when Plisson shanked his clearance it gave Saints the impetus to come again once more, and this time they made the most of the opportunity, Ben Foden timing a run superbly to scythe his way to the line.
Mallinder’s conversion brought Saints back to within a converted try of the Parisians, and straight away they tried to make the most of the man advantage, attacking down the left wing. It was a dangerous move, but again an offload was attempted when it might have been better to take the tackle and regroup.
It was a scrum to Stade, but while Saints turned on the power to catch the eye it was the even more impressive Genia who did not just show great awareness to keep the ball alive from his retreating pack but also sparked his backs into life. Camara burned off Foden on the outside, and while he was taken down by North the French full back was back on the front foot almost immediately and nearly setting up a try for Bosman.
Saints’ scrum on their own put-in was as powerful as it had been on Stade’s, prompting the visitors to introduce Rabah Slimani – who had demolished Gloucester single-handedly in the Challenge Cup final – and later Sergio Parisse at the end of the sin bin period.
It did not take long for the Italian to get up to speed, and just before the hour mark he combined with Genia and Camara with some breathtaking offloading in traffic that put Stade onto the front foot deep in Saints’ half. In doing so Stade had created a massive overlap on the far side, but this time the chance went begging when the ball went forward.
The scrum became a free kick, and when Mallinder’s huge kick was dropped by Vuidarvuwalu just outside his own 22 Saints were presented with a great position. They soon had an advantage, too, but replacement Rory Hutchinson was yellow carded for tackling Genia in the air – giving Stade a penalty in the process – and there was worse to come 90 seconds later when Tom Wood saw red for a stamp on the livewire Camera.
Saints were right up against it, but all it did was raise the team to greater heights. As they powered upfield it was easy to forget that they were still down to 13 men as the forwards drove repeatedly, bringing the Stade defence tight enough to give Tuala space on the wing to exploit.
It was hard to know what was better, Mallinder’s pass, Tuala’s finish, or the fly half’s touchline that took Saints in front and the roof off the Gardens.
But there were still nine nerve-shredding minutes to play. Well, we say nerve-shredding, but there was a quiet confidence on the pitch. Lee Dickson’s game management at scrum time took time off the clock, and while Stade did have some ball at no point did they look like threatening.
Instead the final word – quite literally, given that it was some backchat from Stade that turned a free kick into a penalty – came from Saints, with Mallinder sending a penalty into the stands to bring full-time.
SAINTS Tuala; Foden, Tuitavake, Burrell, North; Mallinder, Groom; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes, Lawes, Day, Harrison, Wood (capt), Picamoles
Subs – Haywood, Ma’afu, Denman, Ratuniyarawa, Gibson, Dickson, Olver, Hutchinson
STADE FRANCAIS Camara; Vuidarvuwalu, Doumayrou, Danty, Sinzelle; Plisson, Genia; Zhvania, Bonfils, Alo Emile, Alberts, Gabrillagues (capt), Burban, Lakafia, Ross
Subs – Burden, Slimani, Melikidze, De Giovanni, Parisse, Daguin, Steyn, Meyer Bosman
REFEREE John Lacey
3mins STADE Try Vuidarvuwalu Con Plisson 0-7
7mins STADE Pen Plisson 0-10
19mins SAINTS Pen Mallinder 3-10
22mins STADE Try Sinzelle 3-15
29mins SAINTS Pen Mallinder 6-15
34mins STADE Pen Camara Con Plisson 6-22
36mins SAINTS Miss pen Mallinder
38mins SAINTS Pen Mallinder 9-22
HALF-TIME SAINTS 9 STADE FRANCAIS 22
41mins STADE Yellow card Bonfils
45mins SAINTS Try Foden Con Mallinder 16-22
61mins SAINTS Yellow card Hutchinson
63mins SAINTS Red card Wood
71mins SAINTS Try Tuala Con Mallinder 23-22
FULL-TIME SAINTS 23 STADE FRANCAIS 22