Harlequins did not just lose their Premiership title in this switchback semi-final; they had it ripped from their possession expertly and mercilessly by Leicester Tigers who in reaching their ninth successive play-off final have surely never hit the home straight in finer fettle than they are now.
Nine finals – wow. It is an incredible statistic probably best judged with calm contemplation – in the summer, maybe, while Leicester’s six Lions tourists are busy down under – and not in the immediacy of the thrill of Tigers’ try by Niki Goneva just before half-time that knocked the stuffing out of Harlequins and the three more by Niall Morris, Tom Croft and the wondrous man of the match Mathew Tait that shattered the reigning champions thereafter. And, by the way, as no one here needs reminding, of the previous eight finals Leicester have lost five of them.
That Goneva try was of Quins’ own making. They might have kicked the ball out and led 9-6, having been playing into the wind. Instead the full-back Mike Brown tried a break that backfired. A reception committee of Geoff Parling and Tom Youngs (two of those Lions) tore the ball off him, and Ben Youngs flipped it one-handed to Toby Flood who transferred it via Jordan Crane to Goneva on the wing. With enough of a gap to accelerate past Tom Casson and drive through the despairing tackle of Tom Williams, the Fijian ran in his fourth Premiership try of the season to a mighty roar, and cut inside to assist Flood’s conversion.
And so in a single thrust Leicester had reversed the tiny but perceptible advantage Quins had worked so hard to achieve. They had attacked Parling in and after line-outs; Joe Marler and the mighty James Johnston bore down on leicester’s loosehead Logo Mulipola, covering for the injured Marcos Ayerza, and Dan Cole in the scrums. But they had blown two great positions for tries including one when Care was denied by Croft’s lunge on the goalline. And scrummaging like everything else when Leicester are firing is a long game. As Conor O’Shea, the Quins director of rugby who spoke with magnificent magnanimity, put it: “We tickled their tummy in the first half. We came up against a force after that that our guys just couldn’t match.”
In attempting to manage the tricky breeze, one early punt from Flood had gone dead, while Evans chose line-outs that encouraged Care to attack the fringes. Once when a Quins maul got stuck Care appeared to wilfully chuck a pass into the referee Greg Garner’s midriff. Chicanery or an honest error? The resulting scrum saw Quins nudge forward and Evans’s penalty had Quins 6-3 up after he had equalised Flood’s opener. Next came one miss and one success for Flood, and another three points Evans, before Goneva’s rousing effort.
And, blimey, if Quins were sucking their teeth at letting him in, Leicester rubbed their noses in it too. Green jerseys hammered into the breakdown, Tom Youngs wrought a tackle turnover and Brown had kicks raining down on him. This was when Quins missed the workaholic qualities of their injured captain Chris Robshaw. Meanwhile Tait, Brown’s opposite number, built on some already promising raids when in the 52nd minute he skipped round two tackles and induced a bat-down of his pass by Care, who went to the sin bin; another blow to the No.9 not selected for the Lions whereas Leicester’s Ben Youngs is on the plane.
It forced Quins to withdraw the hard-hitting Mo Fa’asavalu in favour of Karl Dickson and the visitors’ seven remaining forwards must have thought ‘oh great’. From the next Leicester line-out Anthony Allen and Crane made ground, and Ben Youngs was hauled down by a blatantly offside Marler; the prop being lucky not to see yellow. That was in the 59th minute – Flood’s penalty went over for 16-9 – and Quins were still down to 14 men when Leicester had their second try. Manu Tuilagi was released by Tait’s counter attack to sweep past Ben Botica and sent Niall Morris over for the score that Flood converted.
That had begun with a Brown up and under; another Quins attack that ended with a Botica knock-on soon led to Leicester exultantly going in again. Croft has been rampant and scoring almost weekly since his return from injury at the New Year and the flanker – another of Leicester’s Lions half-dozen – was given his latest glory gallop by Tait and Anthony Allen, before the excellent Tait added Leicester’s fourth try, with a give and take involving Morris as Leicester’s backs romped down the right. Ross Chisholm’s late riposte emphasised Quins’ heart but no more. “When it turns in your favour here it really turns,” Flood reflected. “The tide goes out for the visiting side.” No semi-final defeat on this ground since March 1998, and a run of 13 last-four victories in all competitions anywhere since March 2006 backed Flood’s verdict up - but now it is all about Twickenham on Saturday week, against the winners of Saracens v Northampton today.
Leicester Tigers: 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 Crane (T Waldrom 73), J Salvi.
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), N Easter (capt), L Wallace.
Referee: Greg Garner