Leicester 31 Harlequins 28: Varndell pounces late to keep Tigers in the trophy hunt

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The Independent Online

It is all very cheek by jowl in the grandstand at Leicester, a club which likes to thrive on peer pressure. Marcelo Loffreda and his coaches sit next to the directors' box, which is one row in front of the press area, which houses the visiting coaches – in this case Dean Richards, that eminent ex-Tiger, and his Harlequins cohort. Every groan, cheer and – as Sir Alex Ferguson might put it when it comes to last-day drama – squeak of the backside is there to be seen and heard.

Amid the tumult which greeted Tom Varndell's winning try in added time at the end, however, another sporting knight got overlooked. "Look at that," said Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, pointing to his mobile phone long after the Tigers sealed qualification for the Heineken Cup and, more improbably, the Premiership play-offs. "Missed call: Clive Woodward." The World Cup winner and former Tigers centre has been a non-executive director at Welford Road since October but was not present as Leicester's five tries edged out four by Quins, before Richards raged at Wayne Barnes' "inconsistent" refereeing.

"Clive is a very handy adviser to have," said Wheeler, while confirming his club were trawling "the best six to eight backs coaches in the world" to find an assistant to Loffreda. The latter's position has been the subject of much speculation, but on Saturday evening Wheeler spoke sympathetically of minutiae such as soft-tissue injuries undermining the Argentine's first seven months in charge.

"We'll have a normal review this week which Marcelo will be involved with," said Wheeler, who recently spent three weeks in Australia and Singapore, and spoke to Dick Muir – newly named as the Springboks' backs coach – in Natal.

On the firm ground, gifted runners like Varndell and Quins' Danny Care, Will Skinner and Dave Strettle roamed free, and it looked as if the Tigers' forward strength might not suffice.

The nightmare scenario for Leicester was in place in first-half added time, when Tom Williams' try put Harlequins 21-12 up. At that stage Sale were losing 12-0 at home to London Irish and, if the two scorelines had remained the same, Leicester would have finished seventh and thus out of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 12 seasons of English clubs' participation.

There were, however, always tries in the offing. Although Andy Goode missed 13 points from kicks for Leicester to Chris Malone's six, the highlights included Varndell's sidestep around Mike Brown after 16 minutes and the chip-and-chase at the end for the wing's 13th Premiership try of the season.

Leicester now go to Gloucester in Sunday's second Premiership semi-final; Quins will be in next season's Heineken Cup unless Worcester nick the sixth English place by winning the European Challenge Cup on 25 May.

Leicester: Tries Herring, Varndell 2, J Murphy, Crane; Conversions Goode 3. Harlequins: Tries Brown, Skinner, Williams 2; Conversions Malone 4.

Leicester: G Murphy; J Murphy (A Erinle, 69), D Hipkiss, A Mauger, T Varndell; A Goode, H Ellis; B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 56), M Davies (G Chuter, 64), J White, M Wentzel (R Blaze, 70), B Kay, M Corry (capt), B Herring (T Croft, 56), J Crane.

Harlequins: M Brown; S Keogh (D W Barry, 58), D Strettle, T Masson, T Williams; C Malone, D Care; C Jones, C Brooker, M Ross (J Brooks, 69), J Percival (J Evans, 46-64), G Robson (Evans 64), C Robshaw (T Guest, 59), W Skinner (capt), N Easter.

Referee: W Barnes (London).