A late drop-goal from Andy Goode sent Leicester Tigers through to the Guinness Premiership Final on the back of a dramatic 26-25 victory over Gloucester at Kingsholm on Sunday.
Gloucester's fine season has died a premature death. A late drop-goal from Andy Goode sent Leicester Tigers through to the Guinness Premiership Final on the back of a highly dramatic 26-25 victory at Kingsholm on Sunday.
The Cherry and Whites were hoping to avenge the defeat in last year's Final but the curse of the play-offs struck again.
While the Tigers can now look forward to meeting Wasps at Twickenham on May 31, their opponents must reflect on yet another campaign that saw them fall painfully short.
Gloucester have topped the Premiership table three times in the past six seasons but have been singularly unable to transfer their long-distance skills to the sprint finish.
This experience has embittered the club's collective mind to the knock-out format and they have vocalised their opposition on numerous occasions. And, like any good self-fulfilling prophesy, Gloucester's latest abortive tilt at the title betrayed their negative mindset – and their nerves.
Somehow they managed to throw away a 12-3 half-time lead to a side low on confidence and there for the taking.
The Tigers were down to 13 men at one stage, but still Gloucester were unable to deliver the killer blow.
Leicester, being Leicester, know exactly when they are being offered an inch and they duly took a mile.
“We got exactly what we deserved today,” growled Gloucester coach Dean Ryan after the game. It would be unwise to argue.
But it could have all been so different.
Ryan Lamb, celebrating his 22nd birthday, looked to have put himself in pole position to replace Danny Cipriani on England's New Zealand tour next month by inspiring Gloucester to the brink of victory.
The puckish fly-half bagged 17 points, benefiting from a host of penalties coughed up by Leicester.
But second-half tries from wing Alesana Tuilagi and centre Aaron Mauger – the second stemming from the West Country's answer to the Keystone Cops – kept the visitors within sight of their hosts.
Lamb notched four first-half penalties, and then landed another after the break before converting Simpson-Daniel's slick 57th-minute try.
Simpson-Daniel's scorcher – he rounded off superb approach work by the outstanding Akapusi Qera – seemed enough to end Leicester's reign as Premiership champions.
But the Tigers showed their resilience to prevail amid overwhelming odds and leave Gloucester wondering just what they have to do join an elite Premiership title-winning club of Leicester, Wasps, Sale and Newcastle.
Gloucester suffered a late injury setback when England centre Mike Tindall suffered a recurrence of ankle trouble during the warm-up, and it proved to be costly. Gloucester dearly missed his steadying hand in midfield.
Tindall was replaced at outside centre by James Simpson-Daniel, with Iain Balshaw moving to the wing and Willie Walker lining up at full-back.
Leicester, who edged out Sale and Harlequins to reach the play-offs, replaced injured wing Johne Murphy with Samoa international Tuilagi – Gloucester's destroyer at Twickenham last season.
Lamb opened Gloucester's account by slotting a fifth-minute penalty, but Leicester quickly showed they had not arrived merely to make up the numbers.
Goode landed an equalising strike six minutes later, and the visitors enjoyed a spell of supremacy despite Lamb's second successful kick edging Gloucester 6-3 ahead.
The Tigers gave as good as they got during the opening exchanges, and Gloucester had to be on their mettle in defence against Leicester's midfield threat of Aaron Mauger and Dan Hipkiss.
Lamb's third penalty gave Gloucester a degree of breathing space after Tigers number eight Jordan Crane was sin-binned for killing possession, and the home side looked to make their temporary one-man advantage count as the interval approached.
Lamb's fifth kick at goal rebounded off the post, yet Leicester were reduced to 13 men when Ellis received a yellow card for deliberate offside.
The visitors desperately tried to hang on as half-time approached, but yet another Tigers infringement allowed Lamb his next chance, which he gratefully accepted, making it 12-3 at the break.
The momentum shifted away from the hosts after the break. Goode, now with the wind behind him, started to purr and cut the gap to six points when he found his range from 45 metres early in the second period.
Tuilagi then powered through three defenders to score a converted try in the corner. The spectre of another play-off collapse was at now at Gloucester's shoulder and the Tigers began to believe.
At 15-13 ahead, Gloucester found themselves under escalating pressure, and they still could not relax when Simpson-Daniel struck.
Mauger then profited from poor work by Lamb (a box-kick on his own line to the 22) and Balshaw (a mindless pass to Walker – or was it to the upright?) to pounce in the shadow of Gloucester's posts. Goode converted and then struck a penalty that edged Tigers ahead for the first time after a full 68 minutes.
Lamb missed a touchline penalty six minutes from time, and then it was case of all hands to the pump.
Walker slotted a nervy drop-goal to send the Kingsholm crowd into rapture, but deep-eyed Goode matched the effort in the last minute of the game and Leicester stole a remarkable one-point triumph.
Man of the match: Akapusi Qera did not deserve to be on the losing side. His contribution to James Simpson-Daniel's try will go down into back-row folklore. Andy Goode will receive the plaudits for his kicking, but it was the irrepressible Geordan Murphy who kept Leicester in the hunt, spurring on his mates when they looked ready to throw in the towel towards the end of the first half.
Moment of the match: Qera's moment of magic will live long in the mind, but for the sheer drama of it all, we'll opt for the drop-goals. Willie Walker thought he had won it – but Andy Goode and Leicester had other ideas.
Villian of the match: Surely, Jordan Crane. He hit Ryan Lamb late early in the game and then held James Simpson-Daniel back from what could have been a try-scoring pass.
Pens: Lamb 5
For Leicester Tigers:
Tries: Tuilagi, Mauger
Cons: Good 2
Pens: Goode 3
Yellow card(s): Crane (Leicester Tigers) – taking out support runner, 26; Ellis (Leicester Tigers) – killing the ball, 34.
Gloucester: 15 Willie Walker , 14 Iain Balshaw, 13 James Simpson-Daniel, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Lesley Vainikolo, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Rory Lawson, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Alex Brown, 4 Marco Bortolami (c), 3 Carlos Nieto, 2 Andy Titterrell, 1 Nick Wood.
Replacements: 16 Olivier Azam, 17 Jack Forster, 18 Will James, 19 Luke Narraway, 20 Gareth Cooper,