Two of the finest goal-kickers in world rugby, the international midfielders Lionel Beauxis and Luke McAlister, lost their sense of direction in the molten heat of deep-frozen Welford Road yesterday and as a result of their joint inability to hit the fabled cow's backside with the proverbial banjo, Toulouse disappeared off the Heineken Cup radar. Leicester had Toby Flood on their roster, and if the England playmaker is rarely mentioned when the great marksmen are discussed, the stunning penalty he struck shortly before the interval will be talked about for ever more.
Leicester were six points up when Flood elected to try his luck from the most unpromising of positions a few metres inside his own half. The snow that had been falling all day – 50 tons of the stuff had to be removed from the playing area before the contest had even the remotest chance of taking place – was showing no sign of letting up and as the surface had been comprehensively ploughed by two juggernaut forward packs with the combined weight of a large tractor, conditions were more bog-like than anything to be found on Dartmoor at the dead of winter. Surely, this was an act of hope rather than expectation.
Yet the hope that springs eternal in the human breast is sometimes enough. Flood promptly nailed his kick – it looked a winner from the moment the ball left the tee – and the outside-half celebrated with a footballer's punch of triumph. Nine points up in a game as bitterly fought as this one? It was the equivalent of a 15-point lead on any other day.
"I knew it was massive," Flood said afterwards, shivering like Captain Oates and heading gingerly towards an allegedly therapeutic ice bath, of all things on God's earth. "A two-score advantage was always going to make a difference. When the penalty was awarded and I said I fancied it, Louis Deacon [the Leicester captain and warrior supreme] asked me if I was sure. Then he asked me if I was really sure. At that discussion, I knew I had to deliver. I think the punch in the air was one of relief at the knowledge that Louis wouldn't be trying to punch me at the next ruck."
The reward for the Midlanders is a quarter-final visit to the free-spending Toulon, who buy big-name players the way Oliver Reed bought beer and are in no immediate danger of running out of money. Predictably, Flood was asked about the prospect of a face-off with the well-known Provençal resident Jonny Wilkinson, his old Newcastle and England colleague – and, indeed, mentor. He was not wholly amused. "It'll be just me playing him, will it?" he responded, unusually abruptly. He had better get used to this stuff. There will be oceans of it between now and April.
For Richard Cockerill, the rugby director at Welford Road and a beaten Heineken Cup finalist back in the day, this was the sweetest victory imaginable – not least because he has frequently referred to the fact that failure to qualify for the knockout stage of the best club competition in the sport automatically leaves him in "sacking territory". Yesterday, he reminded the rugby public of his value as a selector, motivator and tactician. All his calls, not least his substitutions, were spot on.
Toulouse were hugely physical in contact – the Test back-rowers Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles, aided and abetted by such class acts as the Argentinian lock Patricio Albacete, put themselves about from minute one – and when they strung some passes together, the wing Yoann Huget looked positively lethal. Yet it was Leicester who claimed the early points through two Flood penalties and they would have been better off still but for Vincent Clerc's corner-flag tackle on Niall Morris, which forced the home wing into a knock-on in the act of scoring. Meanwhile, Beauxis and McAlister were missing their kicks. Not by much – both struck a post with penalty attempts – but by enough.
Turning round on the wrong end of that nine-point deficit, the four-time champions cranked themselves into another gear in the search for a response. Beauxis dropped for goal within seconds of the restart, but sent the ball sliding wide. More damagingly still to the visitors' morale, he failed to convert the game's only try on 48 minutes – the result of a perfectly weighted punt from McAlister that curled away from the Leicester full-back Mathew Tait and rolled over the line within an outstretched arm's length of Huget, who duly completed the touchdown.
Suddenly, Leicester were in serious strife. Taking a leaf from McAlister's book on the methodology of aerial torture, Jean-Marc Doussain hoisted a high ball on Morris and forced him into conceding a no-release penalty. Up stepped McAlister for the easiest of three-pointers, which turned out to be less easy than the New Zealander thought. He missed. Again.
There were, however, the best part of 20 minutes remaining on the clock and for half that time, Leicester found themselves a man short. After having a kick charged down by Beauxis – something of a surprise, given the Frenchman's uncanny impersonation of a hamstrung tortoise – Flood was penalised for a deliberate knock-on and sent to the cooler by the Irish referee George Clancy. This gave Toulouse their best chance of chiselling out the victory that would keep them in the competition.
Close-range line-outs came thick and fast and it looked for all the world as though the Midlanders would splinter and break. They did the opposite. Geoff Parling, the England lock whose engine-room partnership with the indefatigable Deacon was at the heart of this victory, pinched the crucial ball at the crucial moment to relieve the pressure. From there on in, raw spirit was sufficient to seal the deal.
"When we lost in Toulouse in the opening pool game, people said it was a catastrophe for us – that we were rubbish," Cockerill said, with one of those 'told you so' smiles of his. "Yet here we are, finishing top of a really tough pool. It was an 'every man for himself' kind of day and I'm proud of my players. They made some history of their own out there."
Leicester: Penalties Flood 3. Toulouse: Try Huget.
Leicester M Tait (G Ford 68); N Morris, M Smith, A Allen, A Thompstone (S Hamilton 66); T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 63), L Deacon (capt), G Parling, S Mafi, J Salvi, T Waldrom.
Toulouse C Poitrenaud (M Médard 69); V Clerc, F Fritz, L McAlister, Y Huget; L Beauxis, J-M Doussain (L Burgess 71); G Steenkamp (V Kakovin 65-69), C Tolufua (G Botha 58), C Johnston (Y Montes 65), Y Maestri (R Millo-Chluski 61), P Albacete, G Lamboley (Y Nyanga 45), T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).