The last knockings of this gripping Heineken Cup match became as much a mental exercise as a physical one. Toby Flood, Leicester's England fly-half, checked with touchline flunkies linked by microphone to the director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, whether to kick a penalty for touch or go for goal. With a four-point lead and aiming to deny Clermont a bonus point for losing by seven or less, Flood put the ball out. Nothing came of it. A subsequent Clermont throw secured by Julien Bonnaire kept the margin intact to the end.
Sometimes in Europe, winning is not enough. It may be that Clermont and Leicester make it to the quarter-finals but the French side – having won the sides' first meeting 30-12 in the Massif Central a week ago to create a better record in the head to head – are favoured to finish top. In any case, as Cockerill admitted, Leicester almost certainly need to win in Ulster in their next match to qualify first or second. The Irish province are in decent nick and Ravenhill is rarely a place to go needing to win. Leicester should know. Their only previous visit in the Heineken Cup, eight seasons ago, is remembered with a tremble. A team captained from the bench by Martin Johnson played into the wind and were 28-0 down at half-time before losing 33-0. It remains the two-time champions' heaviest European loss.
All this knife-edge stuff was described by Cockerill as the "drama" of the competition. Not that there was any spice or spite lacking on the pitch, whatever the maths off it.
Flood, watched by the England interim head coach, Stuart Lancaster,will have had much happier first halves. It began with the No 10 looking sideways to organise his backs when Ben Youngs at scrum-half was firing the ball at him and it continued with missed penalties in the fourth and 37th minutes. The latter was from long range, similar to one missed by Brock James for Clermont, but the first Flood should have potted.
Clermont led 6-0, bright and alert as their France half-backs, David Skrela (who later went off injured) and Morgan Parra, chipped over drop-goals. But when Leicester made it into the 22 they had their reward. Possibly with a little chicanery at the side of a ruck after a line-out, they engineered a wide channel in midfield defended only by Parra and Flood's inside pass set up Manu Tuilagi for a run-in. The conversion in front was simple for Flood.
Parra's penalty on 19 minutes put Clermont 9-7 ahead and two minutes before the interval Flood forced a pass to Martin Castrogiovanni, who lost control. There appeared to be a Clermont fumble forward but play went on and Wesley Fofana streaked away on the counter, combining with the flanker Alexandre Lapandry up the middle to create an overlap on the right that was exploited by Regan King and Lee Byrne for the All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu to score and Parra to convert.
It is becoming difficult to find a weak link in any top French club side. Clermont lost the centre Aurelié* Rougerie to illness in the week and the lock Jason White to a tight hamstring in the first half, but they had capable stand-ins. They were clever in ripping ball after the tackle and Byrne kicked superbly out of hand. Yet Leicester stole possession in the line-out, the turnovers were just about even and it was a close-run thing.
Ten points in the first seven minutes of the second half did Leicester no harm. Flood kicked a penalty then Youngs made one of his favourite round-the-corner snipes and Julian Salvi, on his shoulder, finished Tigers' second try, converted by Flood.
Parra slid over a penalty off the left-hand post before Flood, from the 22, made it 20-19 just after the hour. That was a penalty against Gerhard Vosloo for killing the ball but though Cockerill grumbled about inconsistent refereeing of the breakdown it looked 50-50 overall.
Sivivatu's spill almost gave Leicester the try they needed to pull clear; Scott Hamilton had a head start in the foot race but lost it when he slid in to pick up rather than hacking on. A scrum penalty each way gave Flood three points and James a second miss from 50 metres and the Tigers had to settle for what may prove to be second best, or even worse. If they fail, England could well have one representative in the last eight – Saracens – or possibly none.
Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt); H Agulla (S Hamilton, 48), M Smith, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; B Stankovich (D Cole, 27-35), G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni (Cole, 49), L Deacon, G Skivington, T Croft, T Waldrom, J Salvi.
Clermont Auvergne L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King, W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela (B James, 29), M Parra; L Faure (V Debaty, 48), T Paulo (B Kayser, 59), C Ric (D Kotze, 55), J Cudmore, J White (N Hines, 23), G Vosloo, J Bonnaire (capt), A Lapandry.
Referee N Owens (Wales).
Tries: M Tuilagi, Salvi
Cons: Flood 2
Pens: Flood 3
Pens: Parra 2
DGs: Skrela, Parra