Leicester Tigers booked a place in the Gallagher Premiership Final with a 27-14 victory over Northampton Saints on Saturday.
In the 249th East Midlands derby, played in front of a semi-final club record crowd of more than 22,000 at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, Tigers made progress and will meet Saracens in the season’s climax at Twickenham next Saturday.
The teams were locked at 6-6 after a tense first half before Saints went in front grabbed the first try of the afternoon after the restart through Tommy Freeman.
There was still little breathing room, though Ford’s late snapshot drop goal pushed the lead finally into double figures and the fly-half, in his last appearance at the stadium as a Tigers player, added a final kick to make sure against a Saints team who arrived with six bonus-point wins in their previous seven games to secure fourth place in the table.
The two great rivals were meeting in the semi-finals for a third time, following previous meetings in 2011 and 2014 when both went in favour of the home team, first at Tigers then at Saints.
Tigers kicked off in incredible noise from a packed house but had to make a change in the opening three minutes when Dan Kelly pulled up in his first game since April. Freddie Burns was sent on from the bench as Steve Borthwick reshuffled the backline in Tigers’ first semi-final appearance since 2017, and a first at home since the team’s last title win in 2013.
The first penalty went against Tigers in contact near halfway and Dan Biggar kicked play towards the right corner but Harry Wells led the defensive effort as the home pack wrapped up ball.
Referee Matthew Carley, who was in charge of last year’s Final, brought the two captains together for a word with barely five minutes played after awarding a penalty to Saints and Biggar guided the kick over from 45 metres for the opening points.
An attack from deep threatened more for Saints but Freeman’s chip and chase ended with a knock-on inside the Tigers 22 as Ford made the tackle.
Full-back Freeman was back in his own territory to field a kick and, as the visitors broke again, Courtnall Skosan hacked ahead and Alex Mitchell picked up to score. The referee had to check, though, and came back for a knock-on as the South African wing reached for the bouncing ball.
The same duo combined for another chance almost immediately but this time Skosan was unable to hold on to the pass in space on the left wing.
Tigers were still having to defend and Saints were playing with an advantage when Matías Moroni stopped Matt Proctor near the touchline.
Play came back for the penalty which Biggar planted into touch on their left, 20 metres from the tryline. A free-kick at the set-piece kept play in that area but Tommy Reffell stepped in to intercept loose ball from the base of the Saints scrum and Potter kicked down the left to relieve the pressure.
When an attacking scrum followed wide on the left, Ellis Genge and Jasper Wiese hit the gainline in possession and then Saints lock Alex Coles whipped a pass over the head of his support and into touch just in front of his own tryline.
Quick exchange at the lineout from Hanro Liebenberg’s catch almost reached the tryline but, when the defence responded, Dan Cole picked up and drove on, bringing a whistle from the referee at the next breakdown and a decision in Tigers’ favour. Ford took the kick to level the scores on 22 minutes.
The Tigers defence got through some strong work as Saints built some quick phases of possession and, when they were forced back, Biggar went for a drop-goal but put it just wide.
As play restarted, Potter was upended as he contested with proctor in the air but, after checking replays, the referee was content to restart with a Saints scrum.
Rory Hutchinson then found a gap from the set-piece but when he went to the left, Skosan was unable to hang on.
Potter showed his skill and bravery again to win high ball and launch a period of Tigers attacks, with Ford’s chip forcing Freeman to gather behind his own line under pressure from Moroni.
The five-metre scrum yielded a penalty in favour of the Tigers, and Ford notched the points to put his team in front on 33 minutes.
Another whistle followed as Mitchell’s skied kick put his forwards offside in front of the ball, and Wiese almost found a way through as he latched on to ball from Ben Youngs, but Saints recovered to answer in defence.
Youngs then had to react smartly to a ball chipped in behind the Tigers defence, reaching it just before Skosan in the corner, though it did mean a scrum restart for the visitors with just 30 seconds remaining in the half. Those seconds had gone by the time referee Carley reset the scrum and both sets of supporters got behind their team for one last effort.
Coles was held up over the tryline, but the referee came back to check a tackle from Porter which was ruled high but mitigation came as the attacking player was falling and that meant yellow not red when Carley went to his pocket.
After Biggar kicked the points to make it level at 6-6 at the break, the Welsh fly-half set the ball rolling again in the second half with Tigers down to 14 men.
With the wind swirling, both teams had to feel their way back into the game before charges from Harry Wells, Liebenberg and Wiese got the home crowd going again, but Saints responded with a dangerous break of their own until Sam Matavesi cut back into traffic with two colleagues pointing into space on his left.
Biggar pushed a penalty into the Tigers 22 on the left and it brought the breakthrough try.
Saints were stopped initially by Liebenberg with a tackle on Api Ratuniyarawa virtually on the tryline but the visitors retained ball until Freeman found space on the right to score.
Biggar missed the conversion with his side 11-6 in front and then left the field, replaced by James Grayson as the two packs prepared for a scrum following a Steward break on the right touchline.
Porter returned from the sin bin and Jack van Poortvliet replaced Youngs as Tigers built ground in attack and it brought a solo score for Ford, spotting space and racing through it to score before adding the conversion for a 13-11 lead.
Porter protected it with a fantastic tackle as Skosan went for the left corner, but Saints were playing with a penalty advantage. Grayson, though, missed the target with a kick which could have given them the lead again.
The fly-half was quickly back on the tee from a scrum penalty and this time added the points for a 14-13 advantage.
The wind was not doing the kickers any favours, or centre Hutchinson when he spilled a Ford clearance midway inside his own half. A scrum penalty followed and Ford thumped the kick through from 35 metres to make it 16-14 approaching the final quarter of an hour.
When Wiese was stopped by a high tackle from Oisin Heffernan from the restart, the referee checked replays before showing the yellow card to the prop.
Potter’s kickchase put Proctor in difficulties as Tigers counter-rucked but, after initially losing the ball, the whistle went in their favour on the floor. Ford’s kick, though, this time hit the post.
Joe Heyes, on for his 100th first-team appearance, forced a handling error which gave front-row colleagues Montoya and Genge the impetus to carry keenly as Saints were marched back towards their own line. When ball came out from the forwards, Ford’s zipped pass put Steward in to score in the right-hand corner.
Ford’s conversion drifted just wide with seven points between the teams and just a few minutes left on the clock.
A knock-on gave Tigers a scrum 25 metres out, with replacements Nemani Nadolo and George Martin taking play on until Ford saw his chance and clipped a drop goal over the bar. The referee had to check but the replays confirmed the strike had cleared the woodwork and put Tigers 10 in front.
They almost added to it as Potter picked up loose ball before being chased down, then Nadolo and Wiese attacked the tryline until Saints forced ball loose.
But the resulting scrum was greeted with a big push and a huge cheer as the referee signalled in Tigers’ favour and as the clock ticked into the final minute Ford made the kick to take his personal tally beyond 20 points and seal the win.