Leicester made it through to their seventh successive Premiership final as victors of a derby match that ended in sweetness and light and hugs all round but could easily have swung in an entirely different direction had Manu Tuilagi, the Tigers' centre, been sent off for punching Northampton's Chris Ashton in the first half.
Northampton's director of rugby Jim Mallinder, whose side have a Heineken Cup final against Leinster on Saturday as hefty consolation – but equally face the prospect of finishing a good season without a trophy – was quite right to say Tuilagi should have been shown a red card over the 32nd-minute incident in which the teenager from Samoa (he turns 20 on Wednesday) who harbours ambitions of playing for England, punched Ashton in the head three times. Instead, both players went to the sin-bin – which was outrageous – on the say-so of the assistant referee, Robin Goodliffe. The experienced Test referee, Wayne Barnes, was looking elsewhere.
Mallinder conceded that Leicester were worthy winners on the balance of play thereafter. The champions of the last two years will go for a hat-trick at Twickenham on 28 May against the winners of today's Saracens v Gloucester semi-final. This was Tigers' 17th win in 22 semi-finals – and 10th in a row – in the open era. And the metaphorical knockout blow was landed by Leicester's other active Tuilagi – the wing, Alesana – with a bullocking try 10 minutes from time.
But the younger Tuilagi could yet be cited and miss the Premiership final for what went on in the 32nd minute. Northampton's scrum-half Lee Dickson had a pass slapped down by Martin Castrogiovanni. The intended recipient, Ashton, was tackled anyway by Tuilagi who went to ground. Ashton pushed his opponent in the back of the head, and Tuilagi got to his feet and delivered a measured left, left, right combination. Weighing in at 110kg he could make a useful heavyweight boxer. What he wants to be is a full international – having qualified for England by playing for the Saxons he is a strong tip to make the summer's World Cup training squad. Ashton was bandaged up on the spot and needed stitches later.
Richard Cockerill, the Leicester director of rugby who hectored the referees' manager Brian Campsall in the stand throughout, claimed not to have seen it. "It was a bloody good performance," said Cockerill, "with our attitude to defend, and not let Northampton have any cheap points. Let's talk about that and not the other crap." The other crap included lazy running, late tackles and general wind-uppery.
The crowd oohed and aahed at Tuilagi's prowess on the big-screen, slow-motion replays. Which Cockerill, who also had laptop replays at his fingertips, did not see. And the spectators were just quietening down when Toby Flood, from the left touchline, landed the first score of the match after 37 minutes. The England fly-half had missed a penalty from near halfway in the 13th minute, given for a late tackle by the Northampton captain Dylan Hartley, who Flood scuffled with in an early indication of East Midlands blood running sun-hot.
While the England manager, Martin Johnson, and his coaches John Wells and Graham Rowntree watched, Steve Myler levelled at 3-3 when Courtney Lawes was tackled in a line-out. Lawes' early prominence waned after his left shoulder was clattered by Tuilagi following the latter's return from the sin-bin.
Flood, close to the posts, made it 6-3 on 59 minutes, after Tom Croft was tackled by Hartley who did not roll away. Flood missed from 45 metres, six minutes later, but he and Youngs did well to keep Leicester on the front foot. The scrums, which Northampton would have been expecting some joy from, came out about even. Indeed Leicester botched great attacking positions at the set-piece in their opponents' 22: Youngs, in the first quarter, saw his put-in roll straight through the tunnel; there was a penalty conceded by Northampton on their own line soon after half-time.
The concluding score in the 71st minute topped off Ashton's day. He went for an interception on halfway, missed it and Leicester, with neat passes by front-rowers George Chuter and Marcos Ayerza freeing Alesana Tuilagi, exploited the space down Ashton's wing. Bruce Reihana's attempted cover tackle was repelled in familiar Samoan style, and Tuilagi scored at the left corner. Though Flood could not land the conversion, the two-score cushion was too much for Northampton. Their wait to win the League goes on and they cannot expect to get anything out of Leinster without a huge improvement.
Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; M Smith (H Agulla, 48), M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs (J Grindal, 77); M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 54), S Mafi (E Slater, 68), G Skivington, T Croft, J Crane (T Waldrom, 65), C Newby (capt).
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler (S Geraghty, 76), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley, B Mujati, C Lawes (M Easter, 72), C Day (M Sorenson, 68), C Clark, R Wilson, P Dowson.
Referee W Barnes (RFU).
Try: A Tuilagi
Pens: Flood 2
Pen: MylerReuse content