Bath Rugby narrowly missed out setting up an all-Aviva Premiership Rugby final in the European Rugby Challenge Cup after a last-gasp Jules Plisson drop goal saw them edged out by Stade Francais this afternoon.
Three tries in eight second-half minutes brought Bath, who were beaten by Northampton Saints in the 2013-14 final at Cardiff Arms Park, back from the dead at the Stade Jean-Bouin, only for Stade to snatch a 28-25 victory and book their place in next month’s final at BT Murrayfield against Gloucester Rugby.
Semesa Rokoduguni, Robbie Fruean and Elliott Stooke all touched down as the visitors recovered from 18-11 down to lead but Hugh Pyle’s 77th-minute score and then Plisson’s 79th-minute drop goal settled a breathless encounter in Paris.
Plisson’s penalty edged the home side in front with just four minutes on the clock but that was cancelled out when Ford slotted away five minutes later.
Stade then sprung into life in earnest, with Geoffrey Doumayou crashing over out wide after a smart move from the hosts to leave the visitors trailing 8-3.
Another Plisson penalty stretched the deficit to eight points in the 16th minute and Bath’s efforts to strike back were repelled by a stubborn bulwark of pink and navy shirts, with Nathan Catt unable to bundle his way over the line after a long catch and drive from the visitors.
In the 29th minute, Bath looked like they were on course to score their first try of the match when Ford fed Kane Palma-Newport and he offloaded to Ben Tapuai but the Australian centre had the ball smacked from his hand as he reached out across the whitewash.
An easily-converted Ford penalty with 33 minutes gone did keep Bath ticking over, the England fly-half making it 11-6, but that almost drew an instant response from Stade, with Will Genia breaking from a lineout and feeding Djibril Camara.
Camara offloaded to Hugo Bonneval, who looked to slide over the line but the despairing last-ditch efforts of Matt Banahan saved the visitors’ bacon and ensured they remained within touching distance at the break.
Stade would move a step closer to the final once the action resumed, though, with Genia popping the ball to Plisson to dot down in the 48th minute, the fly-half adding the extras with the boot to leave Bath trailing 18-6.
As the contest rumbled on, a lifeline arrived courtesy of a fine individual effort from Semesa Rokoduguni with 62 minutes on the clock, the Bath wing handing off replacement Julien Arias and powering over, with Ford converting to reduce the deficit to six points.
Then, the visitors delivered the second part of a punishing double salvo as Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson combined to tee up Fruean to barge his way over in the corner – Ford then slotted over an excellent long-range kick to tie things up at 18-18.
A third try in the space of eight minutes then completely turned the tie on its head, Ford turning provider for Stooke to score and then adding the extras.
But the home side provided a sting in the tail with three minutes to go as Hugh Pyle broke away and stormed his way downfield and over the line to score, Plisson converting to make it 25-25.
A staggering semi-final would then be decided in the most dramatic of circumstances as Plisson took aim from range and fired over a drop goal with seconds to go.
The theatre wasn’t done there however, as Bath went on one last desperate attack and earned a penalty but Ford was unable to convert with the clock dead and it will be Stade Francais in the final against Gloucester Rugby.
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