Revenge is supposedly best savoured on the coldish side and Leicester could have hardly served up a more chilling dish for Bath to swallow on a nip-in-the-air night at the home of Leicester City.
There were precisely 50 seconds remaining on the clock when Julien Dupuy, the Tigers’ replacement scrum-half, scampered over the whitewash for a score that settled a patchy Heineken Cup quarter-final without the provision of extra time.
In doing so, the Frenchman took his side through to a meeting with the Cardiff Blues at the Millennium Stadium in the last four and avenged the 15-12 quarter-final defeat Leicester had endured at the hands of their arch rivals on the same patch of turf three years ago. He could not have done so in much more dramatic fashion.
With the scores tied at 15-15 and the clock ticking down, Dupuy glanced back from a ruck some 30 metres from the Bath posts to see too much traffic between himself and Sam Vesty to attempt to set up a drop goal for his half-back partner.
Instead, the former Biarritz man kept the ball in hand and went for the jugular. To his good fortune, he found the opposition defence ajar and he bolted through it before disappearing under a mountain of green, white and red jerseys.
“After 80 minutes it’s unfortunate, but fatigue comes into it,” Bath’s head coach Steve Meehan said afterwards. The poor fellow looked like a man who had just had a dagger thrust between the shoulder blades. Or a five-point score.
The visitors had enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and Richard Cockerill, Leicester’s acting head coach, said: “We could easily have lost. It wasn’t a classic performance from us but we kept in there and that Dupuy bit of magic won it for us at the end.”
It did that, earning the Tigers a fifth Heineken Cup semi-final appearance, though for much of the evening the recent form that had taken Cockerill’s side to the top of the Guinness Premiership had been subjected to a disappearing trick. In mitigation, they had been obliged to make a late change to their midfield ranks. Already without the orchestrating services of the former All Black centre Aaron Mauger, they lost Toby Flood to a dead leg before kick-off time.
All of which left a heavy burden on the shoulders of Vesty, as the England Saxon shuffled across from inside-centre to outside-half, with Ayoola Erinle stepping up from bench duty and into the No 12 shirt. In the event Leicester’s back of all trades did not disappoint, though it took Vesty and the rest of the Tigers a little while to get their claws into the contest.
Alesana Tuilagi did steam past Matt Banahan on halfway in the 12th minute, before being hauled into touch by the former New Zealand rugby leaguer Shontayne Hape. That apart, though, Leicester looked somewhat laboured until the Bath full-back, Nick Abendanon, was penalised for holding on to the ball in the tackle in the 19th minute and Vesty stepped up to the plate to deliver the first points of the game. They did not come easily – from a range of 40 metres, some 15 metres in from the left touchline – but Vesty’s kick for goal was clean and accurate.
Ditto three minutes later, when the Leicester No 10 landed a second penalty from marginally closer distance, courtesy of a Michael Claasens infringement at a ruck.
That left Bath 6-0 down and they remained there when Butch James took his first pot at the posts, pulling a penalty wide from 35 yards. The former Natal Sharks fly-half bit back in the 36th minute, though, playing his part in finely crafted Bath try.
It came from a line-out on the left, Justin Harrison plucking clean possession and James shipping the ball on to Hape, who feigned a pass back inside to the South African fly-half before floating past Vesty and feeding Shaun Berne – on the field as a replacement for Alex Crockett at outside-centre – for the first five-pointer of the Heineken quarter-final weekend. James kicked the extras, giving the visitors a 7-6 advantage at the interval.
Five minutes into the second half James was on the mark again, landing a penalty from 40 metres and stretching the gap to 10-6. It was the Bath |fly-half, though, who conceded the penalty that Vesty struck at the other end to cut the deficit to a single point.
Then, with 56 minutes on the clock, the pendulum swung in Leicester’s favour, Vesty making it four out of four with his trusty right boot after Harrison had been penalised for not rolling away in the tackle.
From that 12-10 platform, though, Leicester had the lead tugged from under their feet – Lee Mears charging down Geordan Murphy’s attempted clearance and Banahan getting stopped just short before Bath shipped the ball wide to the right for Joe Maddock to score in the corner.
James’s conversion attempt hit the woodwork, and when Vesty landed penalty number five the scores were tied at 15-15 with 13 minutes to play. There they stayed until the dramatic denouement. Bath had what seemed like an age to get James into position for a drop but failed to do so. Instead, it was Leicester who savoured a winning score, served with French relish.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt), S Hamilton, D Hipkiss, A Erinle, A Tuilagi; S Vesty, H Ellis (J Dupuy, 51), M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Catsrogiovanni, L Deacon (C Newby, 48), B Kay, T Croft, B Woods, B Pienaar (J Crane, 47).
Bath: N Abendanon (A Higgins, 75); J Maddock, A Crockett (S Berne, 33), S Hape, M Banahan; B James, M Claasens; D Flatman, L Mears, D Bell, J Harrison, P Short (S Hooper, 57), A Beattie, M Lipman (capt), J Fa’amatuainu.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).