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Fifth time lucky for Stade as they win Challenge Cup

© AFP / by Julian GUYER | Stade Francais' players spray champagne as they celebrate winning the rugby union European Challenge Cup Final against Gloucester Rugby in Edinburgh on May 12, 2017


Stade Francais finally got their hands on a European trophy as they beat Gloucester 25-17 to win the Challenge Cup at a rainswept Murrayfield on Friday.

It meant the French side had finally won a continental showpiece match after previously losing two European Cup finals and two in the second-tier Challenge, with Geoffrey Doumayrou's try nine minutes from time the decisive score.

Victory was all the sweeter for a Stade side whose very existence was under threat this season until a proposed merger with Paris rivals Racing 92 fell through.

They subsequently failed to qualify for the Top 14 play-offs, having been crowned champions of France just two seasons ago.

The first half ended all square at 10-10 after Jonny May's converted try and Billy Burns's penalty for Gloucester were cancelled out by a Jules Plisson penalty and Sergio Parisse's converted try for Stade.

But Stade pulled away after the break.

Defeat meant Gloucester failed to qualify for the Champions Cup play-offs, with Stade already having booked their place in the knockout matches that will decide the last entrant into next season's tournament.

For Gloucester, two-time Challenge Cup winners, it meant there was no flourish to a season that saw them finish a lowly ninth in the 12-team Premiership

Stade, with Australia scrum-half Will Genia pulling the strings, enjoyed the better initial field position.

But it was Gloucester who opened the scoring against the run of play in the 14th minute.

After some subline handling skill from Stade skipper Parisse, England wing May intercepted a pass from centre Jonathan Danty just outside his 22 and ran in unopposed from some 75 metres for a try under the posts.

Burns converted and minutes later extended the Cherry and Whites' lead to 10-0 with a long-range penalty.

The pressure being exerted by Stade's scrum was evident when Gloucester prop John Afoa went off in the 22nd minute before France fly-half Plisson got Stade on the scoreboard with a superbly struck penalty from near halfway.

Stade's fightback continued when, after good work by their forwards, Genia's clever up and under was knocked back by lock Hugh Pyle near the Gloucester line and Italy No.8 star Parisse, Stade's skipper, pounced on the loose ball for a 32nd-minute try.

Plisson converted and the match was all square.

- Huge cheers -

From the kick-off, Gloucester were a man down when captain and scrum-half Willi Heinz received a yellow card from Irish referee John Lacey for a head-high challenge on fullback Hugo Bonneval.

Heinz did not return in the second half after his sin-binning, with Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw taking his place to huge cheers from his 'home crowd'.

Plisson missed a chance to put Stade ahead when he pushed a 40-metre penalty wide of the posts while Stade's back three were struggling under the high ball.

Scrum-half Laidlaw, recently called into the British and Irish Lions' squad for their tour of New Zealand, produced a well-judged kick that caused chaos in the Stade defence but Gloucester fullback Tom Marshall just failed to get the touch down before the ball went dead.

Stade, just as Gloucester had done, then struck with an intercept try.

Djibril Camara grabbed Marshall's pass and then found Danty, who went in at the left corner.

Plisson missed the conversion but Stade were 15-10 up.

Doumayrou then gave Stade breathing space when, after he was missed by opposing centre Mark Atkinson, he scythed his way through Gloucester's defence.

Replacement Morne Steyn converted and the South African added a penalty to put Stade 25-10 up with just five minutes left.

Ross Moriarty crossed in the 79th minute but the Wales flanker's try was too little, too late for Gloucester.

by Julian GUYER

© 2017 AFP