Tuilagi set to miss final despite escaping red card

Leicester 11 Northampton 3
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There are four working days from the conclusion of this compelling Premiership semi-final for an independent citing officer to decide whether to report Manu Tuilagi for his punches to the head of Northampton's Chris Ashton. It should take about 10 seconds and, with custom dictating a rapid hearing, the Samoan teenager with designs on playing for England must expect to be banned for the final at Twickenham on Saturday week.

Watching live, the immediate reaction to Tuilagi's left-left-right combination that opened a cut above Ashton's left eye was "red card". Television replays shown to the sell-out Welford Road crowd only confirmed it. They also laid bare the inadequate decision by England's top referee, Wayne Barnes, to send both players to the sin-bin, on the say-so of his assistant, Robin Goodliffe, who was on the touchline nearest the 32nd-minute incident.

It began with Ashton trying a break off a tap-and-go penalty. He did not receive the ball because Leicester's Martin Castrogiovanni slapped down Lee Dickson's pass, but Ashton was tackled anyway by Tuilagi and gave the Leicester centre a push in the back of the head in retaliation.

Tuilagi, enraged, jumped to his feet and Goodliffe reported to Barnes: "Both players threw punches at each other. Both connected." But while Ashton was just parrying his man in the chest, Tuilagi, a powerful figure at 6ft 1in and 17 and a half stones who turns 20 on Wednesday, connected with two left-handers and a right cross worthy of a professional heavyweight boxer.

Violent contact, tactical wind-ups and tugs, blocks and nudges are part of the game. We also had sarcastic pats on opponents' heads by Castrogiovanni among sundry petty acts. And Manu Tuilagi and Ashton hugged at the final whistle. It is up to the on-field officials to control all the above and Goodliffe's underplaying of Tuilagi's over-reaction clearly affected the outcome: the score was 0-0 at the time. Tuilagi, who has played for the England Saxons and is tipped to be capped in this summer's World Cup warm-ups, was able to play on and celebrate wildly when his elder brother Alesana – benefiting from poor old Ashton failing with an attempted interception – ran down the Saint's vacant wing and bounced off Bruce Reihana's attempted tackle to score Leicester's decisive try after 70 minutes. It had been all kicks before that: two penalties by Toby Flood to one from Steve Myler, and two misses by Flood.

Leicester won their 10th semi-final in a row in all competitions to reach their seventh successive Premiership final, against Saracens on 28 May, while Northampton head to Cardiff for Saturday's Heineken Cup final with Leinster.

"We don't want to have played all this good rugby and come out with nothing," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby. "Losing will pump us up even more."

The way Saints were subdued on the gain line and held at bay at the scrum will not trouble Leinster much. Northampton, who have never won the league, tried to rough up reigning champions Leicester. One shove on Flood by Dylan Hartley prompted the England fly-half to trip and swing an arm at his international team-mate.

"The breakdown is important to Northampton and Leinster will smother them there," Flood predicted. Of his own reaction, he explained: "I'm not going to sit there and take it. He [Hartley] is a nice lad but I put on a different colour shirt to him. I was watching America's Game and I think it was Joe Greene [a legendary NFL defensive tackle], who said, 'Even if your mum pulls on the other shirt you're still going to batter her'. That is pretty much the way it goes."

Leicester: Try A Tuilagi; Penalties Flood 2.

Northampton: Penalty Myler.

Leicester: S Hamilton; M Smith (H Agulla, 48), M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs (J Grindal, 77); M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 54), S Mafi (E Slater, 68), G Skivington, T Croft, C Newby (capt), J Crane (T Waldrom, 65).

Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler (S Geraghty, 76), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley, B Mujati, C Lawes (M Easter, 72), C Day (M Sorenson, 68), C Clark, P Dowson, R Wilson.

Referee: W Barnes (London).