From Tigers, Tigers, burning bright to Tigers, Tigers, crashed and burned. The bright May Sunday morning when the Leicester faithful rolled up at Twickenham full of hope that the Hein-eken Cup would complete a glittering treble in the club trophy cabinet was a distant memory yesterday as the locals turned up at Welford Road for the premature finale to their favourites' latest European campaign.
It must have seemed bad enough when the Tigers left last season's final with tail 'twixt legs after succumbing to not one but two sucker punches thrown by Wasps to the front of the line-out. Eight months on, it was much worse. Their chances of quarter-final qualification having perished in the freezing cold at Murrayfield last Saturday, Leicester were left with nothing more than pride to fight for in their final Pool Six fixture – except for a slice of schadenfreude, which they proceeded to take with relish.
The Welford Road regulars roared in delight as their wounded heroes tore into Leinster and the Irish province's slender hopes of progress. Brian O'Driscoll and his colleagues needed to win in the East Midlands and for Toulouse to live up to their name at home to Edinburgh. They never threatened to fulfil their half of the equation against a Leicester side hungry to prove a point – that the afternoon was no pointless exercise for them. If only Marcelo Loffreda's men had shown the same appetite away from home. Just one point on the road ultimately put paid to their European misadventure.
Only twice before have Leicester failed to make it to the knockout stages. On the last occasion, in 2004, it cost Dean Richards his job as director of rugby. Just two months into his run in the role, Loffreda is not going to suffer the same fate.
He and his club still have two trophies to defend – the Premiership and the Anglo-Welsh Cup – and it was only two weeks ago that his side ran in five tries in a 42-12 win away to Richards' Harlequins. "We must get back to that level," Loffreda proclaimed before kick-off, and his team set about the task with gusto. Even without Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Tom Croft, Aaron Mauger and Dan Hipkiss, they were far too strong for the lightweights of Leinster.
Not that they got off to the best of starts, Jordan Crane conceding a penalty from the kick-off and Felipe Contepomi, Loffreda's long-time on-field lieutenant for Argentina, stepping up to land the three points. The Tigers did not take long, though, to get their claws into Leinster, a couple of piercing runs from Geordan Murphy cutting deep into opposition territory.
The initial damage amountedto nothing more than an Andy Goode penalty, but after Contepomi was credited with a second penalty success at the other end (despite protests from the crowd that the effort had bounced off the right post and wide) Loffreda's men started to make a serious impression on the scoreboard. With 20 minutes gone, they went through a marathon succession of phases before Frank Murphy shipped the ball left to Goode from a close-range ruck and the fly-half fed it onwards for Brett Deacon to apply the finishing touch.
It was a superbly worked score, unconverted. Two minutes later, the lock Marco Wentzel slipped a deft inside pass to Seru Rabeni and the Fijian flew through the Leinster defence on the left. This time Goode added the extras, making it 15-6 to Leicester.
There the score stayed until a Contepomi penalty 11 minutes into the second half. Not that there was any shortage of action in the intervening period – of the X-rated variety, at any rate. Julian White departed to the cooler in the 29th minute, havingthrown a punch in the direction of Malcolm O'Kelly. Seven minutes later Goode followed, his high tackle on O'Driscoll prompting a mêlée close to spaghetti western proportions. The Goode, the bad and the ugly.
Lamentably, O'Driscoll and his colleagues failed to take any tangible gain from their numerical advantage. Goode returned to land two further blows, kicking another penalty and converting late on when the Kiwi flanker Ben Herring burrowed over at the bottom of a ruck. The Welford Roaders loved it, just loved it. Sadly for them and the Tigers, though, their love affair with the Heineken Cup is over for the 2007-08 season.
Leicester: G Murphy; J Murphy, A Erinle, S Rabeni, T Varndell; A Goode, F Murphy (B Youngs, 75); M Castrogiovanni (M Ayerza,65) , B Kayser (G Chuter, 67), J White (D Youngs, 79), L Deacon (capt), M Wentzel, B Deacon, B Herring, J Crane.
Leinster: G Dempsey; L Fitzgerald, B O'Driscoll (capt; J Sexton, 75; G Brown, 80), G D'Arcy, R Kearney; F Contepomi, G Easterby (C Keane, 50); S Wright (C Healy, 67), B Jackman, S Knoop (Ole Roux, 30), L Cullen, M O'Kelly, S Keogh, SJennings, J Heaslip.
Referee: C Berdos (France).