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The fine art of European competition

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'Fine margins' said Richard Cockerill after a handful of points separated Tigers from a home draw in the quarter-finals of Europe's Heineken Cup. Fine margins indeed.

Leading 19-9 against Ulster and seemingly on the way into the top two seeds for the quarter-finals despite losing the opening match in the tournament, Tigers suffered a painful change of fortune in the closing half-hour.

A chargedown try from man-of-the-match Ruan Pienaar was a bitter pill in a very evenly-contested match even before the South African scrum-half decided the outcome with a long-range penalty.

The Tig didn’t even see the final penalty offence, hoping blind faith would pull the team through and provide reward for their efforts in an epic encounter in front of a capacity crowd in fine voice for both sides.

Fine margins indeed.

Pienaar – a world-class operator and the heartbeat of a strong and dogged Ulster side – anticipated the clearance kick and judged the timing and direction of his run to perfection. He also had the pace to go with the brain-power, not to mention unusual height for a scrum-half which allowed the decisive extra stretch.

Taking nothing away from Ulster who emerged as the only unbeaten team in the tournament after six rounds, but the bounce could still have beaten him. An odd-shaped ball could have bounced into touch, over the dead-ball line, over his head, into the crowd, into the Club Shop, anywhere.

But no, the ricochet took the ball behind Flood, then sat up and Pienaar was aware enough and cool enough to follow it and dot down. Fine margins indeed.

As a result, Tigers lost an unbeaten home run in Europe stretching back to October 2006.

Think back to some of the other fine margins in that time – including surviving a last-minute drop goal in the Stade Francais quarter-final back in 2007, the eventful draw with the Ospreys and a draw with Perpignan thanks to a last-minute penalty as Tigers were marched back by the referee. Not forgetting the nailbiting 9-5 win in the snow against Toulouse 12 months ago.

There have been some huge performances and some manic moments in that period as the unbeaten run stretched to seven-and-a-half seasons.

Now Tigers have to go to the Stade Marcel Michelin and face up to Clermont’s 70-odd-game unbeaten home run in all competitions. Records are there to be broken, as we know so well.