Once upon a Premiership final, Alesana Tuilagi's elephantine gallops scattered a trembling and undersized Gloucester to the four winds. The giant Samoan wing was it again yesterday, with a hat-trick of tries to lift Leicester in the third quarter, but the venue, the result and the implications were all tellingly and intriguingly different.
Tuilagi's two tries and a couple of assists in the one-sided 2007 final at Twickenham delivered Leicester the seventh of their nine league titles and earned him an indelible place in Tigers folklore – he received his club cap on the pitch after yesterday's final whistle to mark his recently-made 100th first-team start, to the applause of both sides. It was a surprise they had the energy.
Five tries by each side added up to the highest scoring draw in the top division's history and the most points conceded by Leicester in a home league match (their previous worst was 31 against Harlequins in 1989). And there was a breathless finish when Leicester spurned chances to kill the match, and Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, who was classily influential for Gloucester throughout, ran 60 metres to score an interception try with 13 seconds remaining on the clock. Freddie Burns's conversion did the rest.
Yet in taking three points, the Tigers' chances of hosting a play-offsemi-final were not much harmed (Saracens, the only team to beat them in 13 Premiership matches, look likely to be the other home side). So the result had greater significance for Gloucester. They won theAnglo-Welsh Cup last month to qualify for Europe but had lost at Harlequins and Sale in the meantime, and this was a timely consolidation of their position in third place. If they have to return to Leicester for aPremiership semi-final in mid-May then they will not be cowed at the prospect.
"Coming here, you can't die wondering what you might have done," said Bryan Redpath, Gloucester's head coach. "We haven't got any 'what ifs' from today." Well, perhaps just one. If Gloucester had been able to field a few or all of the injured front-line players Mike Tindall, Luke Narraway, Nicky Robinson, Akapusi Qera and James Simpson-Daniel, it might have been even more of a red letter day for the Cherry and Whites.
As might be guessed from the scoreline, defences were not at their best. Richard Cockerill, the Leicester director of rugby whose side were at Welford Road for the first time in six weeks, said: "I don't know whether our lads thought it was a testimonialbut we've got to be better than that. It's a kick up the backside."
Leicester were too generous by half. They had roused themselves spectacularly from a hit-and-miss first half with that Tuilagi hat-trick between the 43rd and 57th minutes to lead 34-20. One on a wide arc after Rob Hawkins and Ben Youngs went round the corner of a line-out; one from Toby Flood's initial run and Horacio Agulla's well-timed pass; the third by catching Scott Hamilton's lobbed inside pass after Billy Twelvetrees straightened an expansive right-to-left move from a scrum.
Tries by Andy Hazell and Tim Molenaar for Gloucester, andTwelvetrees for Leicester, made it 41-34. The phrase "up the jumper" sprang to mind when Leicester had a line-out near the Gloucester 22 – but, no, the ball went to the backs and was turned over. Some brillianthandling by Gloucester ended in a sad spill by the replacement prop Nick Wood. But Leicester kept it loose, and Jeremy Staunton's pass to Thomas Waldrom was intercepted by Fuimaono-Sapolu.
"Our courage to play and keep playing when we were points down was terrific," said Redpath, who also had to report a suspected dislocatedshoulder suffered by Olly Morgan, the serially unfortunate Englandfull-back who began the try-scoring in the sixth minute but was hurtin a hefty, grappling tackle byMartin Castrogiovanni in thelead-up to Hamilton's reply for Leicester.
Fuimaono-Sapolu sashayed through for Gloucester's second try on 23minutes, Flood kicked 16 points and did not miss and the sun shone allafternoon. Who needs Super Rugby?
Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; H Agulla (M Smith, 54), M Tuilagi, B Twelvetrees, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; B Stankovich (D Cole, 54), R Hawkins (G Chuter, 57), M Castrogiovanni, S Mafi (J Crane, 63; J Staunton, 69), G Skivington, T Croft (capt), T Waldrom, B Woods (C Newby, 57).
Gloucester O Morgan (T Taylor, 9); J May, H Trinder (T Molenaar, 58), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, T Voyce; F Burns, D Lewis (R Lawson, 67); A Dickinson (N Wood, 58), S Lawson (O Azam, 58), R Harden (P Doran-Jones, 58), W James, D Attwood (A Brown, 64), M Cox, B Deacon (capt), A Hazell.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland).
Tries: Hamilton, A. Tuilagi 3, Twelvetrees
Cons: Flood 5
Pens: Flood 2
Tries: Morgan, Fuimaono-Sapolu 2, Hazell, Molenaar
Cons: Burns 5
Pens: Burns 2