Harlequins are sitting pretty at the top of the Heineken Cup Pool Four after beating Pool rivals Stade Franšais 15-10 at the Stade de France on Saturday.
Two first-half tries helped Quins to a useful 12-0 lead after 26 minutes, but they had to cling on from there on in, and rode their luck several times as the Parisians' execution let them down numerous times. Luck had nothing to do with the final ten minutes of frantic defence though, in a belting finale.
It was the first defeat the Parisians had suffered at home in 31 European Pool matches. Harlequins, the boys of the same Pool as Stade Franšais last year, showed a new-found manly resolve in their victory. The bullied weaklings showed they had become the grown-ups of the class during the holidays.
Quins had obviously done their homework on how New Zealand had dismantled England and Wales over the previous fortnight. They committed men to the rucks, drove hard around the fringes and generally chased down everything with breathless enthusiasm and vim.
Both their first-half tries came because they harried Parisians off the ball and pounced on the opportunity clinically. The first, after 12 minutes, came when Gonzalo Tiesi and Tom Williams wrestled Djibril Camara and Julien Saubade off the bounce of a deft chip by Danny Care, with Williams picking the ball off as it squirted out of the ruck and diving over the line.
The second came when Juan Hernandez failed to find a supporter on the offload as he chased back a Mike Brown clearance with two tacklers on him, and Jordan Turner-Hall picked up the loose ball and raced away for the try - a try that spanned the length of the pitch from Brown's kick and off ball that had been won just as Stade had been running for a try.
Otherwise, it was the home side that strung the most attractive rugby together, even if they did not have the ascendancy. Julien Saubade was denied by the TMO in the first minute, Mathieu Bastareaud likewise three minutes later. Quins then dominated the rest of the first twenty minutes, their vigour too much for the hosts to handle.
A move involving Care, Evans and Williams down the left, once again from a turnover, nearly had the hosts trailing by an insurmountable margin on the half-hour, but the tide had begun to turn by then. Hernandez had found his range with his kicking and the backs were running better lines. Sergio Parisse made one telling break, and then from another forward surge Danny Care went offside as cynically as could be, was yellow-carded, and Hernandez reduced the deficit to 12-3 at the break.
Things changed dramatically after the break. Now it was Stade Franšais' forwards hitting the rucks harder and tackling the runners voraciously behind the gain-line. Evans pumped the ball forward, but Hernandez always had ten yards more. The visitors found themselves penned in their own half and then began to find themselves stretched from side to side as well.
Djibril Camara got on the end of a touchline to touchline move to fly down the left and only Williams' desperate tap-tackle stopped him. The ball went right, then left to Liebenberg who fed Leguizamon inside him and the Argentinian flew home for the try. Hernandez converted to make it 10-12.
Hernandez's brilliant chip five minutes later was collected by Rodrigo Roncero who rumbled into the Quins 22. Out the ball came to the left, but Camara had it dashed from his hands in contact.
That was symptomatic of how it went for much of the next 15 minutes. Home side domination, ball driven on through half-gaps, left to right back moves, half-breaks, offloads... and somewhere along the line, there'd be a forward pass, a slightly skew running line, or a simple drop. It became riveting to watch: some top-notch Test intensity rugby as the home side searched for the crucial score.
Instead, Quins made a raid and nicked three points. A scrum was taken against the head - the Parisian pack lost four balls that way, an unacceptable number - Care kicked downfield, and the chasers made Camara hold onto the ball on the ground. Evans clipped over the penalty. 10-15.
Back to the old routine, with the Stade de France rising to shout its adopted team on to victory. Leguizamon, Hernandez, Roncero, Bastareaud, Parisse, Gasnier, all had half-breaks in the final ten minutes but failed to find the crucial offload or step or ounce of strength in the tackle.
The final move should have been a penalty to Quins dispatched to touch. But the men of Twickenham showed a flicker of immaturity still, a punch to Leguizamon reversing the penalty. Once more the blue pack thundered into contact, but to no avail. Quins were let off, but they had earned their reprieve.
Man of the match: Nick Easter. He stole line-outs, he ruined rucks, he broke defenders, he tackled. He did it all.
Moment of the match: The penalty reversal that gave Stade Franšais one more shot at glory. A moment of pure Hollywood drama.
Villain of the match: There were a few dust-ups, but it was difficult to say who started them. Certainly James Percival is lucky he didn't cost his side the match with that final moment of madness as well. But no obvious award here.
For Stade Franšais:
Tries: Williams, Turner-Hall
Yellow card: Care (38, Harlequins, deliberate offside)
Stade Franšais: 15 Djibril Camara, 14 Julien Arias, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Brian Liebenberg, 11 Julien Saubade, 10 Juan Martin Hernandez, 9 Noel Oelschig, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Pierre Rabadan, 6 Juan Leguizamon, 5 Simon Taylor, 4 Arnaud Marchois, 3 Sylvain Marconnet, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Rodrigo Roncero.
Replacements: 16 Mathieu Blin, 17 Franck Montanella, 18 Pierre Vigouroux, 19 Mauro Bergamasco, 20 Alexandre Albouy, 21 Guillaume Bousses, 22 Mark Gasnier.
Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Tom Williams, 13 Gonzalo Tiesi, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Will Skinner (c), 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 Jim Evans, 4 James Percival, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Tani Fuga, 1 Ceri Jones.
Replacements: 16 Chris Brooker, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 George Robson, 19 Tom Guest, 20 Junior Poluleuligaga, 21 Tosh Masson, 22 Chris Malone.
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Touch judges: David Wilkinson (Ireland), Trevor Collins (Ireland)
Television match official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)