Date: 20th May 2011
Kick-off: 19:45 (BST)
Venue: Cardiff City Stadium
At the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday night Harlequins and Stade Francais will be looking to banish their domestic demons and end the season on a high with triumph in the Amlin Challenge Cup final. If the incentive of winning Europe’s second biggest trophy was not enough, then the teams approach this match knowing that a win will assure them of Heineken Cup rugby next year, both having failed to do so through the domestic route.
Unexpected victors over Munster three weeks ago, becoming only the second team to leave Thomond Park victorious in Europe, the team from South West London have been made slight favourites to topple Stade Francais this evening. Succumbing to Saracens in a hard-fought match on the final day of the season, Harlequins have played some sublime rugby this year, but some depressingly poor performances have undermined their better days. Most of which can explain their lowly league finish. However in a one-off match of this size, you would be foolish to write off the ‘Quins, especially after Thomond Park. Coach Conor O’Shea is able to name an identical starting XV to that which lined up that day, with Joe Marler, Joe Gray and influential New Zealend fly half Nick Evans all returning from the Saracens defeat. Chris Robshaw will again lead from the open-side flank and he will have his hands full in a keenly fought contest with England rival James Haskell.
Stade Francais boss Michael Cheika has already made it clear that Heineken Cup qualification is the ultimate prize for this match, though a victory against Harlequins would provide a welcome return to silverware for this unusually glory-starved Stade team. Owner Max Guazzini has hit financial troubles of late, representing a period of uncertainty for many Stade players, and they will hope to provide a temporary reprieve by claiming their place in Europe’s elite competition by triumphing. England interest will be high with Tom Palmer taking his place in the second row alongside Haskell on the flank. The team will be led out by their talismanic figure of Sergio Parisse, who will hope to outshine opposite number Nick Easter. A run of five straight league defeats saw Stade slump to 11th in the Top 14, and creeping elements of this poor form was present in their narrow victory over Clermont Auvergne when sealing their place in the final.
What to expect
With both sides having few qualms about playing expansive rugby, hopefully a firm pitch in Cardiff will provide a suitable habitat for those of the more fleet-footed variety. A dynamic ‘Quins back three are spearheaded by the excellent Mike Brown, who kick-starts many of Harlequins’ forays from deep. However the Harlequins tight five is relatively inexperienced in this environment and this will have not escaped Stade. The likes of Tom Palmer and Pascal Pape will be relishing the chance to take Harlequins on up front, meaning that Harlequins will require big performances from Robshaw, Easter and fly half Evans. Evans has consistently shown an ability to guide ‘Quins out of trouble this season. This may prove invaluable if Stade begin to squeeze up front.
All eyes on
Nick Evans’ return to the starting XV could not have been better timed for Conor O’Shea’s men. Deputy Rory Clegg filled in admirably, however Evans’ ability to direct proceedings from behind the pack, especially when against the talented kicking of Lionel Beauxis, will be very important. It will also be intriguing to see how well the New Zealander has recovered from injury.
He may have started the entirety of England’s Six Nations Campaign, but James Haskell knows that he is far from assured a spot in Martin Johnson’s World Cup squad. This is a chance for the ex-Wasps flanker to lay down a marker and perhaps quieten the increasingly vocal support for his opposite number Chris Robshaw’s inclusion in the squad.
Head to Head: Danny Care vs Julien Dupuy
The ‘Quins man and his ex-Leicester rival may be at polar opposites on the scrum half compass, but both players are of equal importance to their team’s chances. The quick, snappy Yorkshireman Care has added maturity and composure to his explosive breaks this season, while in contrast Dupuy is consistently a figure of calm. Both will be daring and attempt to find gaps, though it will be how both scrum half controls their pack that will dictate the victory in this battle.
The Stade victory over Clermont was far from convincing, having benefitted from two wayward Clermont passes to claim two scores, and Harlequins were by far the more impressive team in the semi-finals. Past performances may count for little in one-off occasions such as these, but I think Harlequins’ incisiveness in attack, led by the mercurial Nick Evans, will see the ‘Quins take a 5 point victory.