Hamilton keeps Tigers alive in pool of death

Leicester 20 Clermont Auvergne 15: Full-back swoops for late try but James' drop goals secure bonus for Clermont

In a triumph of spontaneity over siege-gun kicking, Scott Hamilton's try six minutes from time clinched this must-win match for Leicester, and the surge of relief which ushered the touchline conversion by Toby Flood through the posts summed up both the result and the fly-half's feelings.

Flood's game was gradually petering out, from a Pandora's Box of forays and flourishes to a flaccid series of errors, when, with Leicester's lead standing at a perilous single point, he sliced a clearing kick just outside his 22 high and wide. The ball fell to earth free of the clutches of a couple of competing forwards and could have bounced anywhere, to friend or foe. As it happened Leicester's full-back, the former All Black Hamilton, reacted quickest, scooping the ball into his arms and setting off on a 70-metre run to the right-hand corner of the field, pursued by Clermont's Anthony Floch but with enough momentum to get over the line as his opposite number put in the tackle.

There was still time for Brock James, the Clermont fly-half who had already come within one drop-goal of the tournament record of four in a match, to kick a penalty and secure a losing bonus point for the visitors. But Leicester's chances of reaching the Heineken Cup knockout stage for the 10th time in 13 attempts were intact.

The midweek announcement that French clubs would be subject to a £7.1 million salary cap next season was greeted round these parts with more of an "oh yeah?" than a "ho ho ho", as it would still be almost double the English equivalent. Last night wealthy Clermont had quality foreign forwards like Jason White and Martin Scelzo lurking on their bench. They also had a lack of ambition in their rugby diametrically different from the five tries they put past Leicester in the reverse fixture a week ago; a 40-30 defeat for the Tigers in France.

With their head coach, Richard Cockerill, serving the last match of his four-week touchline ban, and watching from one end, Leicester began well in scrum and line-out. Flood's two penalties went tit for tat with the first two of James's nimble drops to make it 6-6 after 25 minutes. Flood was picking passes as nonchalantly as he might select a packet of biscuits from a supermarket shelf, and he and the comparatively gnomic centres Anthony Allen and Dan Hipkiss – each side fielded a pair of giants on the wings – relished attacking the fly-half channel, even before the scrum-half, Ben Youngs, scampered the same route round the back of a line-out 40m out to create the first try, after 29 minutes. Youngs took Louis Deacon's one-handed palm down, broke up the middle and danced a kind of detached two-step with Aurélien Rougerie – Clermont's captain, who must already have been fed up being the last line of defence – before slipping a scoring pass to Allen at the posts. Flood converted.

Given that this had come just after Flood and Allen had very nearly made a try for Alesana Tuilagi, a 13-9 advantage at half-time was a meagre return for Leicester. It included a penalty in added time before the break by James from the 22 which was much more presentable than those from inside their own half attempted and missed earlier by James and Floch. Such was Clermont's keenness to garner points wherever they possibly could.

Flood missed a 40m penalty at the start of the second half, closely followed by Lewis Moody charging down a Floch drop – you know the form, flailing arms, blond hair flying. When James chipped over again after 65 minutes, Tigers hearts were fluttering.

Hamilton's try settled it, though, and with Bath and Gloucester on the cusp of joining Harlequins in going out of the cup, English pride probably rests with Leicester, Sale and London Irish. The Tigers need as many points as possible from January's visit of Viadana and the infinitely trickier trip to the Ospreys that will round off the pool.

"Whoever wins their next two games will go through," said Leicester's backs coach, Matt O'Connor. True, but it may be in second place and historically that's about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.

Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; L Tuqiri, D Hipkiss (J Staunton, 34-36; 76), A Allen, A Tuilagi (J Murphy, 65); T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, M Davies (G Chuter, 65), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 7), L Deacon (capt), G Parling, C Newby, J Crane, L Moody.

Clermont Auvergne A Floch; A Rougerie (capt), G Canale (W Fofana, 69), S Bai, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra (K Senio, 66); L Faure (T Domingo, 43), M Ledesma, D Zirakishvili (M Scelzo, 71), J Cudmore, J Pierre, J Bonnaire, E Vermeulen (J White, 52), A Audebert.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).

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