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Conor O'Shea praised his Harlequins team for fighting "to the bitter end" after their European Challenge Cup final hopes floundered against a powerful Montpellier side.
Quins saw their chances of giving director of rugby O'Shea a winning send-off fall short as Montpellier outmuscled them to win the trophy at Grand Stade de Lyon.
Substitute Jesse Mogg scored a try in each half, while Montpellier fly-half Demetri Catrakilis kicked four penalties and two conversions to underpin a 26-19 success.
Nick Evans' three penalties meant Quins were in contention at half-time, but Montpellier's heavyweight South African-dominated pack flexed collective muscle at key moments to give French rugby its first Challenge Cup winner since Biarritz four years ago.
Wing Marland Yarde scored a late try that Evans' replacement Ben Botica converted - Botica joins Montpellier this summer - while he also added a penalty, but it was too little, too late, with Botica's last act being to kick possession away in the dying seconds. He cut a distraught figure afterwards.
"We fought to the bitter end, and for that I am proud," O'Shea said.
"That was a final against an outstanding side. The couple of chances we did have, which can give you momentum, didn't go our way.
"At 26-9 down, there were two options. The options were to raise the white flag or fight, and they fought until the bitter end.
"We are gutted at the moment, but the team should be hugely proud of what they achieved in the six years I have been with them. It is a very special group of people, and I have been lucky to have the opportunity.
"We know where we lost momentum for the second season a row - during the Six Nations. That is something we have to solve as a group in the future.
"Hopefully what we've done for English rugby, for Harlequins and England, has been a real positive. But are we gutted at the moment? I am gutted for these fellas. They give so much."
Asked about Botica's poor decision after Quins had clawed their way back to seven points adrift, O'Shea added: "He kicked goals to bring us back into it.
"It's sport, sport is cruel, and it is never one person. There were plenty of errors, and I made a heck of a lot too.
"Ben has been brilliant for four years for us, and he was distraught, but I managed to drag him back on to the pitch and these guys picked him up like they always do."
Quins skipper Danny Care said: "We showed in patches how good we can be - but that's the story of the season.
"I am so proud of all the lads after what has been an incredibly tough week for the club, and hopefully next year we will go one step further.
"They are a very good team, very physical. They made the breakdown a bit of a dog-fight, but we gave them too many points, and you can't expect to win a cup final when you give away too many points like that."
Quins' defeat - in O'Shea's last game in charge before he takes over as Italy's new head coach this summer - means they failed to secure European Champions Cup qualification and will again play Challenge Cup rugby next term.
But they could have few complaints after a crowd of 28,500 witnessed Montpellier's revered power game at first hand, as a club coached by South Africa's 2007 World Cup-winning mastermind Jake White won the first major trophy in their history.
A minute's silence was observed before kick-off in memory of Quins front-row forward Seb Adeniran-Olule, who died at the age of 20 in a road accident earlier this week. His initials were embroidered on Quins' shirts, while the players also wore black armbands.
And O'Shea said: "That group of players put in a performance for a young man who lost his life this week.
"Hopefully, he will have been looking down on us proudly. They never stopped trying. They played with his name on the shirt and kept going to the bitter end."
Reflecting on Montpellier's triumph. White said: "It's special.
"When you start with a team, it takes time for them to develop. When you play against a team like Harlequins, they've been together for a long time, they have a lot of international players and have won this competition three times.
"As a coach, just watching them (Montpellier) tonight and seeing how they've developed makes me really happy to see that the whole group really understands what is needed to win something.
"Maybe not the Champions Cup, but next year we will be playing in the Champions Cup, and that's a great measurement because we will be playing the likes of Saracens, Leinster and Munster.
"I am really happy, and more proud because this group of players now understands just how tough it is to win something.
"Winning creates a habit, and I know we have some really tough games coming up. But when you win, you get an understanding of what it's like to win and what is needed to win.
"I have to believe that this team can go on and win something else."