The Leicester forwards squeezed the life out of the Scarlets in the second half but while the Tigers stand level on points with Perpignan at the top of the Heineken Cup's Pool Five, they are at a disadvantage because the French side had the better of their two meetings in December. The final round of pool matches, next Sunday, when Leicester host Treviso and the Scarlets go to Perpignan, will sort out the quarter-final placings.
If Leicester find themselves on the road in the last eight as pool runners-up they will rue the draw they allowed Perpignan at Welford Road last month much more than the bonus point they missed by not scoring one more try here. The Premiership leaders and English champions asserted their quality and Ben Youngs was among a few who notched a significant chunk out of the tribal totem pole three weeks before Wales meet England in Cardiff. No one is counting points when border warfare is at hand.
The locals packed the bunker-like bars under the grandstand beforehand. By the end they had bowed heads, praying for a win next week that might squeak the Scarlets through. Nigel Davies, their coach, had few complaints – well, just one, really, that Leicester's Thomas Waldrom was illegally off his feet when he flipped up the ball with which Youngs ran in a game-breaking try, the Tigers' second, in the 61st minute.
"There's a lot that goes on at every breakdown," said Richard Cockerill, Davies's Leicester counterpart, by way of an answer to that question. Davies said: "We couldn't control the ball from set piece in the second half and give ourselves a platform to go at them. Once they got momentum it was difficult to stop them."
A shaky start for Leicester was put right with a 6-0 lead inside 16 minutes: two penalties by Youngs' England half-back pal, Toby Flood, on the way to a total of 17 points. Leicester had the control to straighten a scrum as it started wheeling and the Scarlets splintered. Then Alesana Tuilagichipped and ran into Rhys Priestland and on the flimsiest of evidence the referee, Alain Rolland, penalised the Scarlets full-back for blocking.
The strains of "Sosban Fach" were soaring after the Scarlets' try, in the 19th minute. The Welsh region refrained from Hail Mary passes. When it was not on, they did not force it. Instead the side currently second in the Magners League used good work by Rob McCusker and Josh Turnbull at the breakdown and the fly-half nous of Stephen Jones to make the space for Jon Davies to run free and render utterly risible the notion in some quarters that Gavin Henson, the sadly injury prone Saracen, is ahead of him in the inside-centre pecking order. Davies left Martin Castrogiovanni and Louis Deacon trailing and the try was scored by Morgan Stoddart with a step off his right foot.
The problem for the Scarlets was that the effort they had put in to leading 13-9 after 45 minutes – two penalties added by Jones and one by Flood – had sapped them terribly. Their hooker and Wales captain, Matthew Rees, wobbled at the line-out and while both sides were missing creative muses – Geordan Murphy, the Tigers' captain and full-back, and Regan King, the Scarlets' All Black centre – the home team were also three props short.
Leicester, insistently and not a little lavishly, ran in their first try in the 52nd minute. Anthony Allen carved through the middle, George Skivington barged on into the 22 and, going right to left with George Chuter's flip and Scott Hamilton's more straightforward pass, Alesana Tuilagi crashed into the corner.
Leicester's controversial second try came as the clock ticked into the final quarter. Whether or not Waldrom should have been on his feet, the ball was probably there to be played as the blindside flanker flipped it up from a ragged Scarlets ruck. With 35 metres of clear short side in front of him, Youngs raced to the same flag Tuilagi had scored at not long before. We could have done without the scrum-half's football-style finger-to-lips gesture, but it showed his joy and relief.
The conversion from Flood went awry, so Leicester were 19-13 up. But a grimly inevitable penalty, concededby a backpedalling Scarlets scrum, sailed over after 67 minutes, followed by a fifth three minutes later, with the crowd mostly silent by now. A yellow card for Waldrom, for preventing a quick tap, only briefly cheered them – Steve Mafi rumbled over for Leicester's third try, converted by Flood, and Sean Lamont's last-ditch try for Scarlets was pretty much superfluous.
Scarlets R Priestland; M Stoddart, G Maule (L Williams, 69), J Davies, S Lamont; S Jones, T Knoyle; I Thomas (R Jones, 71); M Rees (capt; E Phillips, 71), S Gardner (P John, 49), L Reed, V Cooper (J Fa'amatuainu, 49), R McCusker (B Morgan, 69), D Lyons, J Turnbull.
Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; M Smith, M Tuilagi (H Agulla, 70), A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 77), G Chuter (R Hawkins, 77), M Castrogiovanni(D Cole, 55), L Deacon (capt), G Skivington (E Slater, 77), T Waldrom, J Crane, C Newby (S Mafi, 40).
Referee A Rolland (Ireland).
Tries: Stoddart, Lamont
Con: S Jones
Pens: S Jones 2
Tries: A Tuilagi, Youngs, Mafi
Pens: Flood 5