Phil MacKenzie scored a brace of tries as London Welsh ended their European adventure with a battling display in a 39-17 defeat against Stade Francais at the Stade du Hainaut in Valenciennes on Saturday.
With Exiles unable to qualify for the quarter-finals, Lyn Jones’ side did at least restore some pride following their 68-19 thrashing by the same opponents at the Kassam Stadium earlier in the season.
Buoyed by their nine-try rout of Cavalieri Prato, Alex Davies’ early penalty gave the visitors the lead.
However, tries from Julien Arias, Pascal Pape and Geoffrey Doumayrou – the latter with Alfie To’oala in the sin bin for Welsh – saw the home side lead 18-3 at the break.
Stade secured the point they needed to ensure top spot in Pool 5 and a place in the quarter-finals seven minutes after the restart when referee Andrew McMenemy awarded the home side a penalty try, with Lee Beach having seen yellow moments earlier.
When Remi Bonfils crossed for the hosts’ fifth try seemed Stade might run up a big score, but the Exiles fought back through MacKenzie’s try double.
That stung Stade back into life, however, and Jérome Porical closed out the scoring with a sixth try for the home side.
Twice the Exiles won penalties at scrums with Davies converting the first – the latter from half way dropping just under the crossbar.
From their first real attack, however, the home side crossed for their opening try. A penalty was pushed into the corner and although the Exiles withstood the initial catch and drive, full back Hugo Bonnveal sent Arias over in the corner.
Stade were beginning to move the ball impressively through the hands with Welsh racking up the tackles before the half was out. The pressure was slowly mounting, as was the penalty count, and scrum half Nicolas Bezy increased the lead.
Confident in their driving maul, a kickable penalty in front of the posts was instead fired into touch.
It nearly paid dividends, but the television match official ruled in Welsh’s favour. If it was a reprieve it was only temporary, however, as Stade captain Pape went over from the resulting scrum.
Welsh were down to 14 men when To’oala was handed a yellow card for a late hit on Warwick as the Stade fly half put boot to ball.
The pressure on the Welsh line intensified and despite some heroic defence – Seb Jewell’s excellent tackle on Bonneval just one noteworthy effort – the Exiles’ resistance finally gave out allowing Warwick’s pass to split the Welsh defence.
Gomez Lopez burst through a gap and had centre partner Doumeyrou in support for an easy run in.
When Beach received Welsh’s second yellow card of the night, with the Exiles defending their own line, Stade opted for the scrum with referee Andrew McMenemy’s next action to award the home side a penalty try.
It was Stade’s fourth try and guaranteed their place in the quarter-finals.
Try No 5 followed soon after. Stade’s driving maul powered over the Welsh line from a line-out, with replacement hooker Remi Bonfils adding to the brace he collected at the Kassam.
But Welsh then began to turn the defensive fighting spirit they had displayed all evening to attacking effect, and two tries in five minutes was their reward.
First, when the ball squirted out of the side of a Stade ruck, Ryan Davis pounced and he had MacKenzie in support to outpace the cover defence and score in the corner. Davies added an excellent touchline conversion.
Jewell’s interception led to Welsh and MacKenzie’s second try.
The Exiles’ captain was hauled down within sight of the Stade line, but Welsh recycled and with a huge overlap Adam Brown delivered the final scoring pass for the Canadian international.
That stung the home side back into life and they finished strongly. The game may have gone, but to their credit the Exiles refused to buckle.
A wild pass denied Paul Sackey a scoring chance in the corner.
But Welsh couldn’t clear their lines and eventually Stade’s pressure brought with a sixth try.
Replacement Porical bounced off a couple of tackles and stretched for the line, although the televison match official was called up to adjudicate.
The final whistle then brought to an end Welsh’s European adventure and the club’s priority now is to ensure they get another crack at it, by preserving their Aviva Premiership status.
Line-ups Stade Francais: Bonneval, Sackey, Doumayrou (Fainifo 63), Lopez, Arias, Warwick (Rubio 59), Bezy, Zhvania (Becasseau 66), Sempere (Bonifils 50), Attoub, van Zyl, Pape (Garrault 59), Burban, Lavalla (Chollon 66), Rabadan.
London Welsh: Arscott, MacKenzie, Jewell (Whatling 64), Lewis (Smith 78), Davis, Scott, Davies, Moss (Briscow 68), Bateman (Evans 68), Tideswell (Ion 56), Brown, Corker (Mills 77), Beach, Denbee (Hills 17), To’oala (Williamson 56).
Referee: A McMenemy (Scotland).