For the resurrection men from the Rec, it was just one match too far. Steve Meehan's side might have dragged themselves from second bottom of the Guinness Premiership pile at the turn of the year to within 80 minutes of the play-off final, but in the East Midlands sunshine yesterday they found the reigning champions in no mood to relinquish their crown. Licking their wounds after that rare beast of a home defeat against Saracens the previous weekend, the Tigers were in a fearsomely cussed frame of mind.
That was the very least that could be said of Richard Cockerill, as he watched a trio of unanswered second-half Toby Flood penalties (making it five in total for the Leicester and England outside-half) edge his side over the winning line from a 6-6 scoreline at half-time. Leicester's head coach was in Jake LaMotta mode, hammering his fists down on the bench in front of him and even leaning out over the television gantry at one point to make his feelings clear to Chris White, the man out in the middle with the whistle.
"I was a little bit frustrated with some of the decisions," the old John Bull of an England hooker said, by way of explanation, once the rage had subsided. "I wanted a little bit of continuity, that's all. This is a club I hold dear to my heart and I expect everybody to be passionate and do their job as diligently as everyone should. That includes the refereeing."
It just so happens that the winning job the Leicester players ultimately did on Bath yesterday earned them a date in the Twickenham final on Saturday week against a Saracens side whose director of rugby, Brendan Venter, is facing an RFU charge of "conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game" in relation to his alleged behaviour in the vicinity of the coaches' area at Welford Road nine days ago. So, a quiet little affair that is likely to be down at HQ. "Love them or loathe them, Brendan is doing a good job," Cockerill said, with just the hint of a mischievous twinkle. "It'll be hopefully a very entertaining game."
Yesterday's tryless affair was more absorbing than entertaining. Bath went about their task in hammer-and-tongs fashion from the off. Luke Watson, the sometime Springbok No 8, was conspicuous in the series of forward drives that gave the visitors the first opening, Anthony Allen doing well to snuff out the danger after a dink with the outside of the left boot by Butch James threatened to put Nick Abendanon through.
Then came a neat pick up and off-load in centre-field by David Flatman and a pirouette and break by his front row colleague Lee Mears, whose feed on to Watson might have yielded the opening score had the South African not been lassoed around the ankles by Geoff Parling. Still, Bath had points on the board in the 11th minute, Olly Barkley landing a penalty from 30 metres after Jordan Crane was penalised at a ruck.
Bath's inside centre pushed wide his second penalty attempt but was on the mark with his third, making it 6-0 to the visitors at the quarter-way mark. It might have been worse for Leicester at that stage. It took a brilliant-last gasp tackle by Lewis Moody, their Bath-bound warhorse flanker, to stop Matt Banahan short of the line when the visitors released their battering ram of a left-wing on the crash ball after Flatman and Co had the home pack back-pedalling at scrum-time.
It got better for the Tigers thereafter. By half-time, they had clawed their way on to level terms – only just, mind. There was no disputing the validity of Flood's first penalty. The Leicester fly-half sent it straight down the middle. His second effort was a different matter, though. It looked to have sailed over the top of the far post but it was given the rubber-stamp after several viewings by the television match official, making it 6-6 at the interval.
The tightness on the scoreboard was a mirror image of the action for much of a taut third quarter. With neither pack giving so much as an inch, there was just the one sniff of an opening and that was swiftly snuffed out by Matt Carraro, Bath's Australian outside centre managing to dislodge the ball while Alesana Tuilagi was attempting to release Scott Hamilton on the overlap.
Bit by bit though, Leicester started to put the squeeze on up front. Mears was penalised for not rolling away in the tackle and though Flood was off target with the kick he made no mistake from 40 metres when Bath were hit for a scrum collapse. The momentum was with the home side and four minutes later they had a 12-6 cushion. Tom Croft was hauled down in mid-air by Danny Grewcock and Flood administered the three-point punishment from wide on the right.
Up in the Crumbie Stand, Cockerill was fulminating as the Bath pack repeatedly crumbled at scrum-time. It was another collapse, eight minutes from time, that allowed Flood to nail his fifth penalty of the afternoon – and to secure a sixth successive play-off final appearance for the grisly Tigers.
Scorers: Leicester: Penalties Flood 5. Bath: Penalties Barkley 2.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, M Smith, A Allen, A Tuilagi (J Murphy, 80); T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Catstrogiovanni (D Cole, 65), L Deacon, G Parling, T Croft (B Woods, 79), L Moody (C Newby, 65), J Crane.
Bath: N Abendanon; J Maddock, M Carraro (S Hape, 68), O Barkley, M Banahan; B James, M Claasens; D Flatman (D Barnes, 73), L Mears (P Dixon, 66), D Wilson (D Bell, 62), S Hooper (P Short, 73), D Grewcock, A Beattie, J Salvi, L Watson.
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).
Saracens v Leicester
Saturday 29 May, TwickenhamReuse content