Spirited 14-man Saints clinch final European spot
EURO REPORT: Northampton Saints produced a memorable performance in overcoming captain Tom Wood being sent off to beat French giants Stade Francais 23-22 in their European Champions Cup play-off on Friday.
The Saints - European champions back in 2000 - looked down and out when Wood was sent off with less than 20 minutes remaining reducing them to 13 men as Rory Hutchinson was in the sin bin.
Wood's red card for stamping on Djibril Camara's head came at what looked like a most inopportune time as the hosts had fought back from 6-22 to trail 16-22 and seemingly with the momentum.
However, it was the French side - winners of this season's European Challenge Cup - who wilted in the face of the intimidating atmosphere as chants of cheat cheat cheat directed at Camara rang round the ground.
"We stuck together tight and managed to pull it back, it is what we thrive on, adversity," said Saints lock and man of the match Courtney Lawes.
Stade's Australian international Will Genia bemoaned the fact he and his teammates had spurned two clear try-scoring chances in the second half.
"Hand it to them [Saints] they played well in the second-half, but we were guilty of not putting away those tries," said the 29-year-old Papua New Guinea-born scrumhalf.
"All in all though given what has gone on this season [a failed merger hugely unpopular with the players between them and Racing 92] we are absolutely delighted with how we have fared."
Wood had exacerbated the situation as the 30-year-old England international left the pitch by mouthing off at a still prone Camara accusing the Frenchman of faking.
However, Saints showing incredible do or die spirit stormed back and Ahsee Tuala went over in the corner with eight minutes remaining - Harry Mallinder who had delivered the decisive pass converted brilliantly from the touchline to give the hosts a one-point lead.
The half had started badly for Stade, who went in at half-time 22-9 up, Camara having scored one of their three tries and a sign of how things would pan out as Remy Bonfils was sin-binned.
Saints took their chance immediately as England back Ben Foden's liking for French opposition - he scored four tries in four games against the French national side - shone through again as he came in from his wing and touched down.
Mallinder converted for 22-16.
Stade hit back with Camara twice going on scintillating runs deep into the Northampton 22 but on both occasions his efforts came to nought.
Victory assured Northampton of a fifth successive season of top-flight European rugby and with minds set on erasing memories of the poor campaign this term - finishing bottom of their pool, behind Leinster, Montpellier and Castres.
Tries: Foden, Tuala
Cons: Mallinder 2
Pens: Mallinder 3
For Stade Français:
Tries: Vuidarvuwalu, Sinzelle, Camara
Cons: Plisson 2
Red card: Tom Wood (Saints - dangerous play)
Yellow cards: Rory Hunchinson (Saints); Remi Bonfils (Saints)
Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ben Foden, 13 Nafi Tuitavake, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Harry Mallinder, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Tom Wood (captain), 6 Teimana Harrison, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Alex Waller.
Replacements: 16 Mikey Haywood, 17 Campese Ma’afu, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Api Ratuniyarawa, 20 Jamie Gibson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Sam Olver, 23 Rory Hutchinson.
Stade Français: 15 Djibril Camara, 14 Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Jérémy Sinzelle, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jonathan Ross, 7 Raphael Lakafia, 6 Antoine Burban, 5 Paul Gabrillagues, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Paul Alo Emile, 2 Remi Bonfils, 1 Zurabi Zhvania.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Giorgi Melikidze, 19 Mathieu De Giovanni, 20 Sekou Macalou, 21 Clement Daguin, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Meyer Bosman.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Nigel Correll (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)