Leicester Tigers booked a place in the European Challenge Cup Final with a 33-24 victory over Ulster Rugby at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Friday evening.
Coming back from a half-time deficit with a big second half, Tigers will play in the club’s sixth European Final, at Twickenham on May 21 against either Bath Rugby or Montpellier.
Scores from Ireland internationals Iain Henderson and Billy Burns in a 10-minute spell when Tigers were a man down to a yellow card gave Ulster a 17-6 lead midway through the first half and neither side added anything more in the remaining 20 minutes of the opening period.
But Tigers made a brisk start to the second half with 20 unanswered points including tries from Jasper Wiese and Ellis Genge before a score by Nick Timoney in reply set up a fascinating final 10 minutes at 26-24.
Guy Porter ran in a third try for Tigers who then stood resolute in defence to secure the victory.
Before the game got under way, the teams observed a minute’s silence in respect of former Tigers player and BBC broadcaster Bleddyn Jones who died earlier this week.
Ulster arrived in Leicester chasing a third win at the home of a Gallagher Premiership club after beating Harlequins and Northampton Saints in the last two rounds and they started brightly in possession but met stubborn defence before Nemani Nadolo, back in the starting line-up following two tries from the bench last week, earned a penalty at a breakdown upfield. George Ford, though, was narrowly off-target with his kick from 40 metres.
The fly-half instantly had a second chance after a superb take of high ball by Freddie Steward earned another penalty and this time he landed the first points of a bright but chilly evening.
Ulster had a chance to respond when Tigers were adjudged offside and John Cooney landed the 40-metre kick to level the scores with nine minutes played.
Another penalty gave Ulster a chance to kick for territory on the left and create what looked like the opening try for Rob Baloucoune. But the officials spotted a knock-on in the build-up and the points were chalked off.
Instead, play went back for a penalty and, although Tigers resisted the lineout drive and a series of phases on their own line, they lost skipper Tom Youngs to a yellow card as the penalties mounted up.
Referee Pascal Gauzere spoke to stand-in captain George Ford when the whistle went again and, following a tap-penalty five metres out, second-rower Henderson managed to force his way over. Cooney’s extras made it 10-3 to the visitors.
Ellis Genge had to take over lineout delivery and, at his first attempt, the whistle went in Tigers’ favour and Ford landed a perfect kick from fully 50 metres to make it 6-10.
But Ulster returned to add the Burns score, building pressure up front and moving the ball quickly to left where the fly-half made use of extra men outside to go through a gap and dive in. Cooney’s conversion pushed the visitors 11 points in front.
A lineout drive as Youngs returned set up a promising platform for Tigers and then Ellis Genge made a superb turnover in contact on halfway and Steward angled a grubber into the right-hand corner where Guy Porter forced Jacob Stockdale to dot down behind his own tryline.
The five-metre scrum presented the best opportunity so far and Tigers did have the benefit of a penalty as they pushed forward. But when play came back for another set-piece, this time the whistle went in Ulster favour five metres out from their own posts.
A clever delayed pass from Ford found George Martin just inside enemy territory but Stuart McCloskey won a penalty at the next breakdown to allow Ulster to kick clear.
Calum Green then picked up ball off his toes to find Ford near halfway and he pushed Ulster back into the corner but they were able to claim the resulting lineout and take the clock down to half-time with a 17-6 advantage.
Cyle Brink, Charlie Clare and Joe Heyes joined the Tigers pack for the start of the second half, and they built some promising phases with Genge, Nadolo and Jasper Wiese on the ball but were kept 40 metres out.
There was a delay in play after Cooney was hurt in contact with Nadolo, but when the game restarted, it was Tigers who came flying out of the traps with Genge carrying again and Steward almost scoring in the left-hand corner after a link-up with Liebenberg.
Although the full-back was brought down, Tigers retained ball until eventually providing the chance for Wiese to barge over the line. Ford’s kick brought the score back to 13-17 with 45 minutes gone.
That gap was brought down to a point shortly afterwards when, with Ben Youngs introduced at the restart, Tigers built another attack and Ford landed his penalty kick.
The momentum had swung back in the home side’s favour and they made the most of it, playing the ball wide to the right where Steward almost reached the tryline, and recycling quickly to find Genge out on the opposite flank where he ran in the score.
Tigers led for the first time and Ford added a touchline kick to make it 23-17 on 55 minutes.
The fly-half then made a big contribution in defence as he flew out of the line to meet a long throw from Ulster and force an error, ansd he was quickly prompting at the other end of the pitch, landing a drop goal to push the lead beyond a converted score at 26-17.
Matias Moroni threw himself into contact to win a vital penalty on the ground in front of his own posts and worked hard off the ball again to track down Burns on halfway.
But Ulster played their way back into the game with No8 Timoney racing through on to a short pass in midfield and running 30 metres in on the left. Michael Lowry added the kick to make it 26-24 approaching the final 10 minutes.
An error from Will Addison, misjudging a kick from Steward and then kicking out on the full, gave Tigers some relief from a spell of pressure.
They made the most of it too, with Youngs and Ford manoeuvring play and the forwards carrying until Moroni released Porter to score in the right-hand corner. Ford’s touchline conversion kick made it 33-24 with less than five minutes to play.