Harlequins target 'stylish' Euro Challenge Cup triumph

By Bryn PalmerBBC Sport
Harlequins players (from left) Nick Easter, George Robson, Joe Gray and Ugo Monye celebrate their epic semi-final win over Munster
Quins players celebrate their epic semi-final win over Munster

Harlequins insist they will not abandon their free-flowing style as they pursue a third European Challenge Cup title against Stade Francais on Friday.

Quins missed out on a Heineken Cup spot via the Premiership but could still secure a place with victory in Cardiff.

"We set out on a path to play rugby in a style that suits us," said director of rugby Conor O'Shea.

"The players have decided that is the way they want to play. We will live by the sword and die by the sword."

O'Shea, coming to the end of his first full season in charge after succeeding the disgraced Dean Richards last March, has overseen a promising campaign undermined by a series of narrow defeats.

Of the 11 games they lost in the Premiership this year, eight were by seven points or less [five of which were by three or four points], including three of their last four games.

Similarly, they lost a tight LV=Cup semi-final 21-20 to Newcastle at The Stoop when they were favourites to reach another final after victories at Leicester and Wasps in the group stages.

But after emerging from a European Challenge Cup pool including French Top 14 side Bayonne, they beat Wasps in the quarter-finals before an epic semi-final victory over Munster in Limerick, only the second time in 42 matches the Irish province had tasted defeat at their Thomond Park fortress.

"Nobody expected us to win there - not even our own families!" said Quins skipper Chris Robshaw.

"It gives you that encouragement and belief in each other that we can go to these places and grind out wins. We are known for our free-flowing rugby but to go there and close out that game was a tremendous effort."

Stade Francais - with a star-studded cosmopolitan cast including England duo James Haskell and Tom Palmer, Italy stars Sergio Parisse and Mauro Bergamasco and a host of France and Argentine internationals - lie in wait in the final, being staged at the home of Cardiff City football club and the Cardiff Blues regional rugby side.

Twice finalists in the elite Heineken Cup, Stade have had a poor season domestically, finishing 11th in the Top 14 after losing their last five league games.

But O'Shea dismisses their domestic troubles as "irrelevant" as Quins target a third triumph in the second-tier European competition, having beaten French opposition - Narbonne in 2001, Montferrand (now Clermont Auvergne) in 2004 - in their two previous finals.

"You can forget their league form," added the Irishman. "They have one of the great young coaches in Michael Cheika [who led Leinster to the Heineken Cup in 2009], and outstanding individuals all across the team.

"They will be massively disappointed with the Top 14 but this is their shot at redemption. It is a final and both sides are going to be right up for it, but we are going to be every bit as hungry, if not hungrier, than them.

"It is a massive opportunity to win some silverware. You need a bit of luck but if we play with the right tempo and intensity, we are a pretty difficult side to play against, and a very confident side.

"The guys can't wait for it. They want to go out and express themselves, put their game on the pitch and do themselves justice."

Aside from longer-term absentees, flanker Tom Guest and scrum-half Karl Dickson, O'Shea has a full-strength squad at his disposal.

Stade will be without the services of Scotland full-back Hugo Southwell and France hooker Dimitri Szarzewski.

Southwell is sidelined with a knee injury while Szarzewski is not yet fit enough to resume competitive action despite returning to training after Achilles tendon surgery which ruled him out of the Six Nations.

Remi Bonfils, 22, will start at hooker and Stade will have no specialist cover on the bench with third-choice Laurent Sempere out injured. Prop Damien Weber will provide an emergency option.

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