Northampton Saints 23 Stade FranÃ§ais 22: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings
Saints certainly saved their best until last.
At the end of a season that has brought plenty of lows, there was a real high at Franklin's Gardens on Friday night.The Saints of old finally showed up. And how.In scenes reminiscent of the incredible May, 2014 win against Leicester Tigers, Jim Mallinder's men delivered a stirring fightback with just 14 men.Ahsee Tuala channelled his inner Tom Wood to spin and score under pressure in that famous corner of Franklin's Gardens.And Harry Mallinder displayed the kind of ice-cool ability that Stephen Myler has done so often down the years.It was so similar to that memorable victory against Tigers, which booked a place in the Aviva Premiership final.And the atmosphere was almost as good.It was the loudest it has been at the Gardens since that Tigers semi-final.Last-gasp winning tries on alcohol-fuelled Friday nights will do that for the place.And so will big rewards.Back in 2014, Saints were targeting Twickenham.They were desperate to see off their rivals and claim their first Premiership title, which they would do by beating Saracens in equally incredible fashion.On this occasion, silverware wasn't at stake.But Saints' standing among Europe's elite was.They needed to beat Stade to book their place in the Champions Cup for next season.Defeat would have brought Challenge Cup rugby to the Gardens, and the pool stages of that competition possess very little glamour.Now, Saints will be dining at the top table again.They will be up against Europe's best, as they have been in every season since 2009.They certainly didn't do it the easy way.But when do Saints ever take the path of least resistance?Back in 2014, they went down to 14 men before Wood's score saw off Leicester.And in the final against Saracens, they needed extra-time and a last-gasp Alex Waller effort to claim the Premiership crown.This time, Saints were down to 13 men for a few minutes as Rory Hutchinson's yellow card was followed by Wood's red.But that didn't deter the home side, who had looked to be really struggling when they headed in 22-9 down at half-time.Instead, Saints summoned up every ounce of spirit they possess to stop sparkling Stade Français in their tracks.The French giants didn't score a single point in the second period.Saints, however, scored 14.And it was just enough to earn a victory that would book them a place in next season's Champions Cup.Qualification certainly can't disguise a disappointing campaign.But it can at least send the Saints coaches, players and supporters away for the summer in a much better mood than they would have been in.Plenty of work needs to be done as Mallinder's men look to get back to competing for trophies next time round.But they can now build knowing that Challenge Cup trips to European outposts will not be on the agenda.They will get the increased revenue that big games in the big competition brings.And they will get the satisfaction that they can test themselves against the best.Stade were certainly a stellar side, packed with star names.But, in the end, Saints showed there is no substitute for pure passion.Stade brought on the likes of Rabah Slimani and Sergio Parisse in a bid to see the game out.But it made no difference as Saints' super-subs were the ones calling the shots.Now the entire squad needs to carry this sort of steel and style into next season.Because if they can, there will be more memorable nights at the Gardens in 2017/18.How they rated...AHSEE TUALAHow fitting that this man should get the key try for Saints as he has been one of the real plus points in recent months... 8BEN FODENMade the crucial breakthrough with a second-half score and gave everything he had, even if it was difficult to defend against Stade's rapid runners... 7NAFI TUITAVAKEWas a real livewire in the first half and always tried to make something happen, keeping Stade on their toes... 7LUTHER BURRELLWas in fine form against Harlequins a few weeks ago and this was a similar display, full of power and desire... 8GEORGE NORTHThe big man stepped up in the big game, making more carries and metres than any other player on the pitch... 8HARRY MALLINDER - CHRON STAR MANAnother fine showing from the talented young back, who has really stepped up at fly-half in the absence of Stephen Myler and JJ Hanrahan. Won the match with a calm conversion... 8NIC GROOMLooked to force things a bit during the first half, but calmed it down in the second while still keeping the tempo high... 7ALEX WALLERHelped Saints eventually win the scrum battle and put everything he had into this game at the end of a long season... 7DYLAN HARTLEYHas given his all for his club since helping England to win the Six Nations and he is worthy of praise... 7KIERAN BROOKESPossibly the prop's most influential display of the season as he carried with real force and got the upper hand in the scrum... 7COURTNEY LAWESAnother game, another hugely impressive performance. The lock has been gargantuan for Saints this season... 8CHRISTIAN DAYLooked to drive his team on with some good carries and tackles, showing just how vital he is to the side.. 7TEIMANA HARRISONPlenty of fire and desire from the flanker, who made more tackles than any other Saints player and carried with real determination... 8TOM WOODBlotted his copy book with the sending off, but before that he had been a key presence for Saints... 6LOUIS PICAMOLESOne knock-on proved costly, but he did little else wrong in another good performance in a Saints shirt... 7Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)RORY HUTCHINSON (for Tuitavake 54)Always adds class to proceedings, but perhaps a little youthful exuberance got the better of him as he took Will Genia out in the air and saw yellow... 6API RATUNIYARAWA (for Day 56)Is a good man to have in reserve as he often provides plenty of impetus from the bench, carrying the fight to Stade... 6JAMIE GIBSON (for Picamoles 56)Got stuck in after coming on for Picamoles and helped to drive Saints across the line to victory... 6