Rugby Union / Pilkington Cup Semi-Finals: Battling Back ushers Saints through door: Leicester and Harlequins emerge triumphant to contest rugby union's great club showpiece at Twickenham

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Leicester . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28

Northampton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6

THESE were Tigers burning so brightly that the one worry Leicester might have as they prepare to confront Harlequins in the Pilkington Cup final in three weeks is that they may somehow have burned themselves out altogether with their superlative semi-final performance.

Northampton, as their captain conceded, were undone by the attribute that no coach can thrust upon you: sheer pace. 'Forget the lions against the Christians; today it's the Tigers against the Saints in the Colosseum of Welford Road,' BBC Radio Leicester had heralded it and in the end John Wells's team proved themselves a superior breed of animal.

To be precise, they were superlative only in parts but those parts were so good that they are already relishing the prospect of winning the trophy for the first time since their illustrious predecessors completed a hat-trick in 1981. 'We have a side who can beat Harlequins convincingly and if we play like we did in this match I am sure we will,' Neil Back said.

Indeed, if the flanker who has wildly fluctuated in England's affection this season plays like he did in this match - and the rest follow the example - his optimism will surely be justified. The debate has turned so strongly in his favour that even Geoff Cooke, the England manager, had to put him in the tour party to Canada.

Moreover, there was - still is - a body of opinion, headed by Wayne Shelford, a former New Zealand captain no less, that says Back should instead be on the Lions tour to the All Black's homeland. Afterwards, they were queueing up to praise Back, the most telling comment coming from Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director: 'The fact that he is 5-10 and not 6ft is perhaps the biggest irrelevance in the game today.'

A jam-packed 16,400 had seen what Russ meant. Back's capacity not just to tackle but instantly to be up again, either making another or lending indispensable support to his own ball- carrier, is evident in every game, though one imagines never more so than on Saturday.

And when he ploughed through Frank Packman's tackle for Leicester's second try, showing speed and strength, he exploded the theory once propounded by Cooke that someone of modest stature could not really hope to match up to the muscular requirements of new-law rugby.

Cooke is also manager of the Lions and, as it happens, was at Welford Road to see what they will be missing by having settled for the more obvious physical presence of Peter Winterbottom and Richard Webster at open side. If it works, fine; but if it does not . . . It is, presumably, a question of grand strategy, though it would be hard to back the Lions in the straight eyeball-to-eyeball forward confrontation that seems to be envisaged. On the other hand, Back himself never expected to be chosen whatever others may have believed.

'He would thrive in New Zealand football,' Shelford enthused. 'If they saw a player of his ability they would always pick him. But then you would have to complement him with a Dean Richards and another big loose forward. He is just an unlucky young footballer at the moment.'

Shelford should know. He, after all, had just played against Back, the neat idea of culminating a career of the utmost distinction with a Twickenham appearance blown away by Leicester's dazzling first half. (Instead, Shelford's three seasons in England will conclude at the more prosaic setting of Richmond Athletic Ground when Northampton play London Scottish in a fortnight. 'It's too bloody bad,' he said.)

Northampton wanted rain and a sticky pitch conducive to their intention of attacking through a burly back row. Instead, they got sunshine and in fact it was Leicester who succeeded at close quarters when Richards ploughed straight through the Saints' line-out for the opening try.

'For the first five minutes everything went to plan,' John Olver, the Northampton captain, lamented. 'But after that the level of their pace killed us off.' If there was nothing pacy about Richards's try, what followed was Leicester at their most incisive, quick of thought and deed. Matthew Poole surprised himself by emerging from a maul with the ball and in short order it went through Rory Underwood and Aadel Kardooni before Back's final injection of pace - and, of course, power.

Their score augmented by John Liley's place-kicking and a thumping Jez Harris drop goal, Leicester reached half-time 20 points up. At which point Russ, in a state of bliss, was anticipating a 40-pointer. Instead, an already fractious affair was increasingly bogged down and, after Nick Beal's second penalty for Northampton, the second half was redeemed only by Leicester's third try.

This would have been a classic if Ian Bates had not thrown the ball forward in the middle of its creation but, even so, it brought the capacity house down as Back (naturally), Poole, Kardooni, Harris and Potter also combined to dispatch Laurance Boyle to the corner. What a pity these were isolated moments.

Leicester: Tries Richards, Back, Boyle; Conversions Liley 2; Penalties Liley 2; Drop goal Harris. Northampton: Penalties Beal 2.

Leicester: J Liley (L Boyle, 53); T Underwood, S Potter, I Bates, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells (capt), D Richards, N Back.

Northampton: J Steele (J Ward, 60); N Beal, F Packman, R MacNaughton, H Thorneycroft; S Tubb, M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), G Pearce, J Etheridge, M Bayfield, P Walton, W Shelford, T Rodber.

Referee: D Matthews (St Helens).