This was a stunningly entertaining match that you almost wished the two teams had saved for the Premiership final, should either or both get there, across the road at Twickenham next month. Leicester are odds on to make it after extending their Premiership record to six bonus-point wins in a row and with Bath at Welford Road as their last regular-season fixture in a fortnight. Harlequins, still the league leaders, but by only a point from the Tigers and three from Saracens, will finish away to Sale and may fear being edged out of a home semi-final.
Fear, though, was not the word to rush to after this. Attack, nerve and verve were more like it. Quins' director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, summed up the feelings of everyone from gnarled coaches to the babes in arms whose prams are placed in front of the stands at the Stoop. "What a game," he said. "It's a battle won by Leicester but hopefully we'll have another to come at some stage. We contributed outstandingly but the better side won."
The better side remarkably often, indeed, with Harlequins having won only two of their last 28 Premiership meetings with Leicester, though the multi-coloured ones' record in cups is not so bad, so perhaps a sudden-death final would suit them.
From Thomas Waldrom's signature "toot-toot" signal beating the television match official's thumbs up for the first of Leicester's four tries, the Tigers had resolve, back-up quality and a cutting edge. The goal-kicking contest between the fly-halves, Nick Evans and Toby Flood, was of the highest quality too; there was not one missed in 16 attempts between them, even if Evans was carrying a troublesome ankle.
"We're the two best sides, playing and on form," said Richard Cockerill, O'Shea's Leicester counterpart. "To outscore Quins on tries and over the 80 minutes outplay them was good for us. Especially when they have been hailed as the attractive side."
Leicester's 7-0 lead became 10-6 with two penalties to one by Evans and Flood. By half-time their personal duel stood at six to five as Quins' movement tested Leicester's ability to stay, as the grifter Luther Coleman put it in The Sting, mostly legal. Flood was intercepted by Ugo Monye on the Quins 10-metre line for the home side's first try and when Manu Tuilagi prevented George Lowe, off the ball, running on to Jordan Turner-Hall's pass, a yellow card to the Leicester centre helped sustain Quins in their most profitable spell of 20 points in 10 minutes. Evans's penalty for the Tuilagi offence was followed by a try for Nick Easter, bullocking over on the short side of a scrum – this from a Leicester line-out overthrow that was knocked on by Waldrom.
Easter had gone past Tom Croft off the flank and Ben Youngs at scrum-half and Croft was left in a heap, to be carried off with his neck braced. The all-clear for the England flanker's neck was given later; more likely was damage to the right shoulder. The hiatus while Croft was tended to interrupted Quins' flow and Tigers began clawing back from 23-10 down. Flood and Evans exchanged penalties, then a midfield move that appeared dead proved anything but as Croft's replacement, Steve Mafi, strode away to score Leicester's second try. Flood's penalty on half-time had Quins just three points ahead.
Quins attacked Manu Tuilagi as a weak link of Tigers' distribution and it is something both Leicester and England need to work on, but Anthony Allen's form is a counter-balance. Another Flood penalty followed by Lowe's try from Evans's lovely dab of a kick had Quins 33-26 up. There were very few scrums – to Quins' liking, you might have thought. In fact they earned a penalty at the first one and with Chuter misplacing a line-out on 58 minutes, the set-pieces were no playground for Leicester.
But Turner-Hall was left standing by Allen's footwork as the Leicester inside centre bolted through a gap on 65 minutes; Tigers went left and Geordan Murphy fed Alesana Tuilagifor a try. The Premiership's leading try scorers were on top when Waldrom went jogging in for his second. A tiring Quins had withdrawn Easterand Monye was helped off with a leg injury. Evans was substituted with nine minutes remaining.
Leicester, Premiership finalists for the last seven seasons, are rarely bested for their bench and Martin Castrogiovanni, on for Dan Cole, was a ghoulish nuisance to Quins. The home side's last chance was lost when Sam Smith tossed a madcap reverse pass that was knocked on. When Lowe could not resist creeping round a ruck to tackle Youngs, the final swing of Flood's right boot took his tally to 23 and rubbed out Quins' losing bonus.
Harlequins M Brown; U Monye (R Chisholm, 71), G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans (R Clegg, 71), D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson (T Vallejos, 67), M Fa'asavalu, N Easter (T Guest, 64), C Robshaw (capt).
Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogivanni, 55), G Skivington, G Parling, T Croft (S Mafi, 27), T Waldrom, J Salvi.
Referee W Barnes (London).
Tries: Monye, Easter, Lowe
Cons: Evans 3
Pens: Evans 4
Tries: Waldrom 2, Mafi, A Tuilagi
Cons: Flood 4
Pens: Flood 5