Leicester wake from slumber to reach final

Leicester 28 Harlequins 13 Leicester win 51-39 on agg
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The Independent Online

There is nothing remotely wild about the Wildcard, that's for sure. A mere 5,552 souls pitched up at Welford Road for the second leg of the semi-final of the end-of-campaign tournament for also-rans that nobody much cares about – Leicester generally attract 16,000-plus for a midweek runaround with Kingston Bagpuize Extra Thirds – and the players lived down to the occasion with considerable ease. The Midlanders sweated for 77 minutes before seeing off Harlequins 28-13, and 51-39 on aggregate, which said a good deal about their current state, yet they are now clear favourites to make the cut for next season's Heineken Cup. Weird.

European qualification is supposed to be the Wildcard's raison d'être, but a cynic might suspect the Premiership clubs of fixing their gaze on the pound signs. The competition has its roots in the valuable sponsorship agreement with Zurich, and with the two broadcasting companies also involved, it turns a penny – albeit at the price of players turning up their toes through advanced knackeration. Once again, it is the poor bloody infantry who are bearing the brunt of rugby's madhouse economics.

Andre Vos, as committed a loose forward as it is possible to imagine, failed to reach the end of the first quarter yesterday. Will Greenwood's contribution was of the strictly limited variety – he spent much of his time aiming ironic smiles at the unfathomable referee, Roy Maybank – while Dan Luger was anonymous, something of a sadness given that he was making his final appearance in the pastel shirt.

Of the Leicester contingent, Tim Stimpson looked shot to pieces and Freddie Tuilagi could barely run five metres without falling over. Neil Back, keen to play after a month of injury frustration, was far from error-free during the 66 minutes he spent in one piece.

Leicester, threatened with the ignominy of missing out on Heineken Cup rugby for the first time, started the afternoon three points adrift of the Londoners, and it was not until the fourth minute of the second-half that they established an aggregate lead.

The fallen champions were fairly hopeless in the opening period – Stimpson, their premier marksman, could not have hit the neighbouring general hospital with an elephant gun – and when Ugo Monye, a fast and gifted right wing, collected a pass from Greenwood and sped 60 metres up the middle of the field for the opening try, calamity was on the cards.

But Leicester still have something about them, and when Tani Fuga, the Quins hooker, went through a bad patch with his throwing following treatment for a heavy knock, they were ruthless enough to take full advantage. Graham Rowntree hoovered up a loose ball after Fuga had missed his mark for the second time running, allowing Glenn Gelderbloom to capitalise by slipping between Mel Deane and Roy Winters for the equalising score.

Stimpson banged over penalties either side of the interval to make it 16-10, and when Back showed enormous strength and aggression to wrestle over in the left corner after 57 minutes, Quins appeared to have shot their bolt.

They might have made a scrap of it even then, though. Paul Burke, striking the ball with customary sweetness, kicked a penalty from his own half to cut the arrears to eight points before hitting a post from 40 metres. Peculiarly, Quins then turned down a kickable chance seven minutes from time, when success would have left them within a drop-goal of the final. They elected an attacking line-out instead, and were promptly betrayed by another rotten throw from the unfortunate Fuga.

Folly? Very definitely. Four minutes later, Tuilagi stayed on his feet just long enough to put Back's youthful deputy, the 19-year-old Will Skinner, over at the posts. Job done, with a little to spare. But this is not the Leicester of old – or even of six months ago.

Leicester: Tries Gelderbloom, Back, Skinner; Conversions Stimpson 2; Penalties Stimpson 3. Harlequins: Try Monye; Conversion Burke; Penalties Burke 2.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd, G Gelderbloom, F Tuilagi, G Murphy; C McMullen, H Ellis; G Rowntree, D West, R Nebbett (D Garforth, 51), M Johnson (capt), L Deacon (B Kay, 51), P Short, (A Balding, 63), N Back (W Skinner, 66), M Corry.

Harlequins: N Williams; U Monye (B Gollings, 79), W Greenwood, M Deane, D Luger; P Burke, M Powell; J Leonard, T Fuga, J Dawson (L Gomez, 53), W Davison (J Evans, 51), S Miall (K Rudzki, 51, J Hayter 59), R Winters, A Vos (capt, P Sanderson, 18), A Diprose.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).