Losing 17-3 with just a few minutes remaining at the Aviva Stadium, Tigers claimed a converted try from Rob Hawkins with three minutes remaining and were forcing Leinster back again before the final whistle brought the European campaign to a close.
“The attitude of the guys to keep going and to make sure it was still a contest in the final minutes was outstanding,” said director of rugby Cockerill as the dust settled on a 17-10 defeat in the club’s 10th European quarter-final.
“Getting into a quarter-final and losing is an opportunity missed but I’m not going to criticise the guys – you cannot fault the effort and spirit in the team.
“In the first half we had a lot of ball in their territory but just couldn’t quite break it down and we got penalised six times carrying ball.
“Credit to Leinster, they are a good side, they played well, they put us under pressure and they defended well when they had to.
“If we had taken our chances and dealt with things better at times perhaps it could have been different.”
Tigers were denied a try by the television match official ruled that Alesana Tuilagi hit the touchline as he dived in early in the second half in probably the team’s best attack of the afternoon.
“Last week at Quins he had a great finish for a try like that, this week he’s been unlucky,” said Cockerill. “It was a pretty good break to get there in the first place and it is about very small margins.”
Already without George Skivington, Tigers lost the other half of the club’s most experienced second-row combination when Louis Deacon was substituted due to injury before half an hour had elapsed.
“You want your most experience guys out there on days like this, but I have nothing but praise for Ed Slater and Steve Mafi. They are young men learning their trade and they had to deal with a high-pressure environment like this for the first time. They went out and fronted up. Steve was still showing up in the final attacks of the game and Ed got through his work. They’ll learn from it.”