Heroic Quins march on in Europe
December 7, 2008
No - not Jeux Sans Frontières - just another extravagant pre-match display at Stade Francais © Getty Images
Simply spectacular. Harlequins' heroic display in crashing Stade Francais' party not only managed to live up to the lavish pre-match entertainment but underlined the fact that the Heineken Cup is the greatest rugby competition in the world.
The Rugby World Cup may have a wider global impact but fans must wait four years between feeds while the Super 14 surely fails to match the Heineken Cup in terms of passion and intensity. Europe's premier club competition delivers year-on-year and goes from strength to strength. European rugby chiefs, fresh from agreeing a new four-year deal with their sponsors earlier this week, will revel in a plethora of positive headlines while Heineken can rest easy that their investment is safer than anything else in this current climate.
Remember, this was not a final, not even a make-or-break pool game - just the latest stop on the colourful and consistently entertaining path to this season's finale at Murrayfield. A record crowd of 76,569, the highest ever attendance for a pool game, swarmed into the Stade de France following the latest marketing master stroke from Stade president Max Guazzini. The French media mogul enticed the masses with the promise of an unrivalled match day experience - all for the price of a few euros. And what a feast for the eyes they witnessed. Take note the rest of Europe.
There were knights on horseback jousting in front of a baying crowd, can-can girls from the world-famous Moulin Rouge, mass gymnastic demonstrations and a mock burning at the stake of Saint Joan. If that wasn't enough the proceedings were brought to a climax with an eagle swooping in to deliver the match ball.
The game itself had a Test-match intensity with more than its fair share of controversy. But Harlequins' unyielding effort cannot be faulted with captain Will Skinner leading by example and a tenacious display from scrum-half Danny Care rightfully earning him the man of the match honour. But to single out individuals would perhaps do Quins a disservice as it was a superb team effort that saw the Premiership side notch their greatest euro success and end Stade's 17-match unbeaten run of home wins in Europe.
OK - the referee may have played a greater part than any neutral would have liked. Quins took the lead thanks to some typical broken play invention that eventually saw Tom Williams dot down having flirted with the offside line. If that was marginal then there was nod doubt about Jordan Turner-Hall's effort soon after when Djibril Camara was taken out of the game before the Quins centre raced home.
Perhaps sensing that referee Alan Lewis was in favourable mood the Quins pack continued to push the limits at the breakdown but Stade responded and looked likely to conjure a comeback win when a sublime offload from Brian Liebenberg put Juan Leguizamon in for a try. The drama continued to the very end with the visitors desperately defending their line and with victory apparently theirs they almost threw it away. Care was guilty of goading Leguizamon when a penalty looked to have given Quins a famous win but it was reversed as a result. But they were not to be denied and snuffed out Stade's final effort.
Harlequins boss Dean Richards, anxiously prowling the touchline as the game entered the final stages, took on the role of a proud father after his side's victory.
"We have a huge amount of talent, and there are young boys out there. They are growing up quickly and will learn from matches like this," said Richard, with the cameras catching maybe half a smile from the normally straight-faced boss.
But the entertainment did not end there with an extravagant fireworks lighting up the Paris skyline. And the great thing about this tournament is that we get to watch these two sides go at it again next weekend - albeit without the dancing girls et al.
There are surely lessons to be learnt from the Guazzini-effect. One look at the empty stands at Murrayfield where a little over 7,000 turned up to see Wasps beat Edinburgh on Friday night illustrates this. European rugby chiefs will do well to remember that being the best does not mean you are perfect. The Heineken Cup may well be the sport's trump card but there is still room for improvement.
Some clubs may not have the luxury of the deep pockets of Stade's generous benefactor but they need to work harder to get fans through the gate. Harlequins themselves will attempt a similar feat later this month after switching their Premiership clash with Leicester over the road to the larger Twickenham Stadium. They are not anticipating a sell-out but it is a brave move with the intent of taking the game to a new audience that must be applauded.
The Heineken Cup is the benchmark in so many ways, most notably on the field, but cannot yet claim to refresh all parts which bodes well for all because as a result they cannot rest on their laurels.