Harlequins 19-17 Stade Francais
Evans conjures grandstand finish
December 13, 2008
Nick Evans slots the match-winning drop goal at the Twickenham Stoop © Getty Images
Incredible sporting drama. No other words for it.
Harlequins' last-gasp Heineken Cup victory over Stade Francais ranks as one of the most dramatic conclusions to a game ever and Nick Evans' virtuoso display will ensure his place in rugby folklore. His exploits may lack the occasion of the Rugby World Cup-winning efforts of England's Jonny Wilkinson or South Africa's Joel Stransky but Evans trumps them both, and others, when it comes to composure under pressure.
A bold call some may say - but in Evans' case we are not talking about a single moment of magic, instead we were treated to a sustained masterclass in cool-headedness produced in the white heat of battle.
If for some bizarre reason you are not already a fan of this competition then I urge you to re-live the last few minutes of this game and let the excitement and drama wash over you. I don't care how you do it - by reading some of the countless column inches that will be dedicated to it, by catching glimpses of greatness on YouTube or by listening to those who were lucky enough to be there - you deserve it, call it an early Christmas present.
Evans, whose All Blacks credentials marked him out as world-class before his arrival on the English stage, went a long way to re-paying the reported £320,000 that brought him to west London with an incredible display of assured decision-making at the business end of a fiercely-contested clash. The historic victory in Paris last weekend had got the world's attention and this return clash was to be the true test of Harlequins' credentials. Whereas last weekend we had the dancing girls and fireworks, the return fixture had a more old fashioned feel with the weather determined to play its part. Although robbed of a crisp handling game, the wintry showers at least brought another dramatic element to an intense game.
A nip and tuck affair saw the visitors take a narrow advantage into the break but an Evans penalty wrestled the lead back for the home side. And it looked as if a brave defensive performance might see Quins home but an out-of-sorts Juan Martin Hernandez still conjured enough magic to edge his side ahead with a trademark drop goal to set up a frantic finish.
Evans is worthy of his moment in the spotlight for more than one flash of brilliance but credit must go to his side for securing and delivering the ball an amazing 29 times in succession as they chased an unlikely victory. Yes, that's right - 29 times they kept the ball alive and out of Stade's clutches defying the big-match pressure, the elements and one of the best sides in Europe.
No.8 Nick Easter must have pushed his fly-half for the man of the match honour with some tireless work in the set-piece and the loose culminating with the England international scrambling on his hands and knees for every crucial yard.
With the clock ticking down the pressure was growing on Evans to take his shot - his forwards had laboured at the frontline time and time again but their arm wrestle with their Stade Francais counterparts looked to have ground to a halt. Reluctantly he took the pass from his ever-lively scrum-half Danny Care but with conditions trying under foot and the Stade defence baying for his blood he thought quickly under pressure and raced into the vacuum left behind them, gaining 40 yards before being brought down.
Following the lead of their fly-half the rest of the team dug deeper still to build again.
Once more the forwards led the charge deep into Stade territory with the hope of providing Evans with a more favourable shot at a match-winner but amazingly, when poised in the pocket once more. he dummied the defence again before racing towards the Stade line. Yet more assured derring-do.
Hauled down again his task would now at least be a lot easier. He retreated into position again and this time came the kick and yet more drama. His 'ugly' effort struggled to get over the posts and referee Nigel Owens opted to go to the video but Evans knew he had won it and had already wheeled away to celebrate.
Those exhausted and unable to join him following the final dramatic act collapsed to the ground with the delight of 12,000 ecstatic fans ringing in their ears.
Few would have picked Harlequins as potential kings of Europe at the start of this season but they are without doubt a force to be reckoned with now.
Five dramatic finishes to rival Harlequins' last-gasp victory:
England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson kicked England to Rugby World Cup glory with an extra-time drop goal to set the seal on the northern hemisphere's first victory in the sport's global showpiece. Wilkinson's last-gasp effort was all that separated the sides after 100 minutes of intense rugby and was a fitting finale to the sport's best-ever tournament.
With time running out, veteran scrum-half Rob Howley conjured an opening with a cunning grubber kick up the left touchline that Toulouse fullback Clement Poitrenaud tried to usher into touch or into in-goal. Howley dived for the ball and claimed the try but Irish referee Alain Rolland went to the Television Match Official before awarding the score. The try gave the Premiership side a crucial advantage with just seconds to play and Mark Van Gisbergan added the conversion to seal the win.
One of the sport's all-time great games was also blessed with a dramatic finish. An injury-time try from Jonah Lomu earned New Zealand a stunning victory over arch rivals Australia in Sydney in front of a world record crowd of 109,874 at Stadium Australia.
Tim Stimpson kicked a last-gasp penalty from five metres inside his own half that hit the post and the cross bar before going over. His 60m effort booked Leicester's place in the 2002 Heineken Cup Final where they would go on to beat Munster.
The Bulls snatched a dramatic victory over South African rivals the Sharks in a pulsating Super 14 Final in Durban. Speedster Bryan Habana cut his way through a tired Sharks defence for an injury-time try that set up the match-winning conversion that was slotted by fly-half Derick Hougaard.