A text message from his coach, Richard Cockerill, yesterday morning was the signal for George Ford to make ready for the biggest match of his young life. The 19-year-old did not let Leicester down. Displaying the sang froid we have come to associate with his Saracens counterpart Owen Farrell – a long-time friend in England age-group teams – Ford helped create both Leicester's tries and kicked 14 points as Saracens failed in a ferocious fight to hold on to the Premiership title in this play-off semi-final.
Leicester's much more senior fly-half, England's Toby Flood, had been prominent in the 10 straight wins that brought the nine-times champions into the knockout stage. But Flood's dodgy ankle had prompted Ford's dad, the former England defence coach Mike, to flag up the selectorial change in a radio interview on Thursday; the Tigers conceded the truth half an hour before kick-off.
"It was touch and go but Cockers told me to prepare as if I was playing," said Ford, whose immense promise as the world junior player of the year for 2011 has been evident in all his 19 first-team appearances. "In the warm-up in front of 20,000-plus supporters you're buzzing and the chances we got, we took."
He also recommended unhesitatingly the recall of Flood for the final – Leicester's eighth in a row – against Harlequins at Twickenham on Saturday week. "Hopefully Floody will be fit to give us our best shot," said Ford. "It's all about the team."
In that regard Leicester also suffered the absence of the openside flanker Julian Salvi, which made the post-tackle area about even, with penalties galore. But Saracens have been labouring for months without the flankers Jacques Burger, Kelly Brown and Andy Saull, and with Justin Melck added to that list their defensively dominated game has been savagely ruptured. For all their run of three wins at Welford Road – the best by any English club since the 1970s – including a 50-pointer during World Cup time last September, this was a different tale.
Cockerill said his team never doubted themselves, despite lying 11th in the league in early season. Six defeats in the first seven matches became three in the last 27.
"If we play to our ability we can beat any side," he said. "Two tries to none, we played all the rugby." A loss away to Exeter in February was followed by a session of backside kicking. They have not been beaten since.
Saracens, once the underachievers, must now digest a different feeling as deposed champions, having finished third in the league. They had a chance to score on 12 minutes, but as Dave Strettle hurtled for the corner a lunge from Alesana Tuilagi made the England wing lose control in his one-handed grounding. A big shove on the resulting scrum put-in drew a penalty out of Saracens, reversing the bragging rights of Leicester's buckling that had allowed Farrell to kick the visitors ahead from halfway.
Ford settled with a simple penalty before Farrell's kick from 30 metres made it 6-3 to Saracens. Leicester won a penalty at a ruck from the restart and kicked to touch. Five metres from the Saracens line the throw in was ropey but Steve Mafi's barge invigorated the move and Ford's miss-pass to Tuilagi opened a gap past Farrell that the Samoan cantered through with a wide grin. Ford converted:10-6 to Leicester after 20 minutes.
Farrell replied with two clumping 40-metre kicks, either side of a miss, but Ford's second penalty had Leicester a point up at the break. Saracens' supporters blew hooters that looked and sounded a lot like vuvuzelas, so their South Africans must have felt at home. One of them, the former head coach now Cape Town-based technical director Brendan Venter, sat in the same grandstand seats where two years ago he had a row that cost him a suspension for the final.
The odds on Leicester being there shot up when Ford made a slashing break through the visitors' backs and set up the second try, in the 49th minute. Tuilagi's brother Manu supported him and Saracens' Mouritz Botha and Alex Goode, in stepping into the path of the human cannonball, smashed heads with each other. With those two down (Botha, cut, would go off), Craig Newby and Geordan Murphy skilfully put Mafi in at the left corner. Ford's penalty on 51 minutes made it 21-12, Farrell replied six minutes later and we were down to base instincts.
Saracens were holding on for dear life at a series of five-metre scrums until Marcos Ayerza at loosehead was surprisingly pinged and Saracens cleared, giving them 12 minutes to retrieve six points. Ford tried a penalty from 55 metres and hit the bar.
The tension increased; the backs exchanged glares and verbals. And with one last, masterly 50-metre kick, for a scrum penalty, Ford finished the job with an exultant pumping of his fists.
Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; G Ford, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 59), G Skivington, G Parling, S Mafi, T Waldrom, C Newby.
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle (J Short, 66), O Farrell, B Barritt (A Powell, 78), C Wyles; C Hodgson, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 53); R Gill (J Smit, 78), S Brits (J George, 78), M Stevens (C Nieto, 61-74), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis, 48), J Wray (H Vyvyan, 78), E Joubert, W Fraser.
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
Tries: A Tuilagi, Mafi
Pens: Ford 4
Pens: Farrell 5