England star Marcus Smith suffered missed conversion misery as comeback kings Harlequins fell agonizingly short of another spectacular recovery act despite beating Champions Cup opponents Montpellier 33-20.
The Quins fly-half drifted a straightforward conversion attempt of wing Louis Lyangh’s 75th-minute try wide, and Montpellier won the round-of-16 clash 60-59 on aggregate.
The English champions, 14 points adrift after last weekend’s first leg when they trailed 34-0 at one stage, looked on course to secure a European last-eight spot for the first time since since 2013.
They needed to evoke memories of last season’s stunning Gallagher Premiership play-off victory over Bristol, when Quins were 28 points down before winning after extra time.
And first-half tries from full-back Huw Jones, number eight Alex Dombrandt, center Joe Marchant and Lynagh – all converted by Smith – underlined Quins’ appetite for another memorable turnaround.
Montpellier, the French Top 14 league leaders, stayed in contention through tries center Yvan Reilhac and full-back Julien Tisseron.
Fly-half Louis Forsans kicked two conversions and a penalty, while South African World Cup winner Handre Pollard added a penalty to edge Montpellier through.
Quins showed a solitary change from last weekend’s defeat, with flanker Will Evans preferred to Tom Lawday in the back row.
Montpellier boss Philippe Saint-Andre, though, made 13 switches, including South Africa’s World Cup-winning fly-half Pollard lining up at inside center and former Bath number eight Zach Mercer – a two-try performer six days ago – on the bench.
It took Quins just 33 seconds to open their account as they struck from a first visit to Montpellier’s 22.
Dombrandt surged through a huge gap in the Montpellier defence, and his pass sent an unmarked Jones sprinting over for a try that Smith converted.
Pollard missed a long-range penalty chance to open Montpellier’s account, but the visitors were level after 11 minutes when Forsans’ sharp break was rewarded by a strong finish from Reilhac.
Pollard’s conversion tied things up, only for Quins to score from their next attack as quickly recycled possession produced enough space for a Dombrandt try, again converted by Smith.
Montpellier remained firmly in the contest, though, and a Forsans penalty cut their deficit midway through the second quarter and underlined the size of Quins’ task.
Quins then scored a stunning third try after length-of-the-field move started by Smith.
He could have taken a safe option of kicking to touch, but he opted to run instead, before sending wing Cadan Murley clear, and he delivered a scoring pass that Marchant gratefully accepted.
Smith again added the extras as Quins looked to take charge, yet Montpellier hit back eight minutes before half-time when Tisseron touched down following more impressive work by Foursans, who added the conversion and made it 21-17.
But a breathless first half had one more try to deliver, and it was Quins who pounced for a fourth time.
A strong attacking scrum provided exactly the platform they required and Lynagh scored in the corner, with Smith’s touchline conversion putting Quins 11 points ahead at the interval.
Quins could not add to their tally in the third quarter, and a Pollard penalty meant that Montpellier had a six-point aggregate advantage with 25 minutes left.
But Quins laid siege to the Montpellier line during a spell of concerted scrum pressure as a pulsating encounter entered its final installation.
Referee Mike Adamson was lenient on the French side, opting not to show a yellow card despite them conceding eight successive, but his patience then snapped and replacement hooker Jeremie Maurouard was sin-binned.
Smith then pounced for what appeared to be Quins’ fifth try, but Jones was penalized for crossing, and Montpellier escaped as the clock ticked down.
Lynagh then sent the crowd wild when he claimed his second try five minutes from time, but Smith’s missed conversion meant that Montpellier prevailed.