Leicester’s supporters took to their message boards to praise the sportsmanship of Harlequins’ injured captain Chris Robshaw as he watched this savage Premiership semi-final beating that deposed the reigning champions.
In the hospitality rooms behind Robshaw’s Caterpillar Stand seat, many ex-Tigers including the executive director Peter Wheeler were whistling in admiration after the match at the brutal power their team had unleashed in the third quarter, galvanised as Leicester were by Niki Goneva’s thrilling try in first-half added time.
Another spectator was Nick Youngs, the former England scrum-half and father of the Tigers’ – and now Lions squad’s – brothers Tom and Ben, who is planning a trip to watch the first and second Tests in Australia.
Before then, Leicester’s 33-16 victory means they have a final to win: their ninth in a row in the Premiership play-offs, with five of the previous eight since 2005 having been lost.
Asked before yesterday’s second semi-final between Saracens and Northampton which team he would prefer to meet at Twickenham on Saturday week, Toby Flood replied: "I dunno. Doncaster?" But the Leicester fly-half added some qualification. "Sometimes it doesn’t marry up, the supposed strength of one team against another. Everyone had us down to win last year’s final but we got battered." Last year’s final, of course, was won by Harlequins 30-23 with Robshaw a rampant try-scorer.
This season’s rigour and attrition appears to have caught up with the workaholic flanker and England captain and some of his team. Robshaw twisted an ankle in a humdrum league match at Worcester three weeks ago and he was missed badly in this semi-final – all the more so as Harlequins also had problems at half-back.
Nick Evans struggled to produce the foot-speed that lights the touchpaper of his many talents while Danny Care, after a magnificent season, appeared to be labouring with a leg injury when he was sent to the sin bin after 51 minutes and never reappeared. Quins took off a flanker to bring on Karl Dickson as scrum-half cover and in the 10 minutes they spent with 14 men they went from 13-9 down to 23-9 with Flood kicking the third of his three penalty goals and converting a try by Niall Morris made by Mathew Tait’s counter attack and Manu Tuilagi’s burst.
For the Tigers’ part, Tom Croft kept up the wondrous form he has shown since returning from a neck injury at the turn of the year; the flanker’s power at the breakdown and convincing impressions of Usain Bolt in the wide channels have marked him out as the first among equals in Leicester’s half-dozen Lions squad members. Croft has unleashed three coruscating tries in as many matches against Bath, London Irish and now Harlequins.
"It’s a double-edged sword, as Tom is keeping Steve Mafi out of the side," said Flood, semi-seriously. "Crofty will always do things like that: game-changing moments." Croft, who will make a flying visit to the Lions’ pre-tour camp in London tomorrow before resuming Leicester training, also praised the strength in depth of the Welford Road squad. "From one to 43 we’ve got guys who can do the job. It’s a credit to the club," he said.
They will need to find a replacement this summer for the departing tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni – the name of Perpignan’s Jerome Schuster has been bandied about – who was in tears at the final whistle of his final home match after seven seasons, just as his Quins’ counterpart James Johnston looked inconsolable before his forthcoming move to Saracens.
Meanwhile, Tait and Anthony Allen – two backs not even touring with England let alone the Lions – revelled in making Quins swallow some of their own offloading medicine. "We felt we’d been knocking on the door for a while in the first half," said Flood. In the second, Tigers battered it down with Morris, Croft and Tait scoring tries between the 62nd and 72nd minutes, before Ross Chisholm got one back.
"Nine finals is an achievement but it’s all on the final now," said Croft, 27, anticipating his fourth appearance in the showpiece – he missed last year but played in the 2011 loss to Saracens, the 2010 win over the same opponents and the 2009 defeat of London Irish.
Scorers: Leicester: Tries Goneva, Morris, Croft, Tait; Conversions Flood 2; Penalties Flood 3. Harlequins: Try Chisholm; Conversion Evans; Penalties Evans 3.
Leicester: M Tait; N Morris, M Tuilagi, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood (capt; G Ford, 73), B Youngs (S Harrison, 73); L Mulipola (F Balmain, 78), T Youngs (R Hawkins, 70), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 68), G Kitchener, G Parling (S Mafi, 73), T Croft, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom, 73).
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, T Casson (B Botica, 49), U Monye (R Chisholm, 66); N Evans, D Care (K Dickson, 63); J Marler (M Lambert, 63), J Gray (R Buchanan 63), J Johnston (W Collier 68), O Kohn (C Matthews 63), G Robson, M Fa’asavalu (Dickson, 53-63; T Guest, 63), L Wallace, N Easter (capt).
Referee: G Garner ( London ).