League leaders Leicester were denied victory in the final seconds of an epic Aviva Premiership Rugby contest at Welford Road as play-off rivals Gloucester snatched a deserved 41-41 draw.
Centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu's interception try, converted by Freddie Burns, ensured the highest-scoring draw in Aviva Premiership Rugby history and the most points Leicester have ever conceded on home soil in a league game.
The Tigers looked as though they would bounce back from their painful European exit to stay in charge of the Aviva Premiership Rugby title race.
Juggernaut wing Alesana Tuilagi scored three tries in 14 minutes to ruthlessly overturn an interval deficit, but Gloucester drew level at 34-34 before Leicester centre Billy Twelvetrees claimed what appeared to be a winning score midway through the final quarter.
Gloucester though, had other ideas, and the brilliant Fuimaono-Sapolu claimed his second try when he intercepted Jeremy Staunton's pass 60 metres out, which Burns goaled with the final kick of a 10-try thriller.
Third-placed Gloucester led 17-13 at the break following touchdowns from full-back Olly Morgan and Fuimaono-Sapolu, but Tuilagi then cut loose as he took his Aviva Premiership Rugby try tally this season to 10. England fly-half Toby Flood converted Tuilagi's treble and also added the extras to an early Scott Hamilton score and Twelvetrees' touchdown, while two penalties meant he finished with 16 points.
Gloucester though, confirmed their status as probable play-off qualifiers, with flanker Andy Hazell and substitute centre Tim Molenaar adding second-half tries before Fuimaono-Sapolu and Burns provided the finishing touches. Like Flood, Burns ended with 16 points, and Gloucester will feel disappointed that victory eluded them after stretching champions Leicester to the limit.
Both sides showed multiple changes – Leicester after their punishing Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster last Saturday, and Gloucester at the start of a gruelling three games in nine days schedule which will also see them face Northampton and Saracens.
England flanker Tom Croft captained Tigers, while former Leicester player Brett Deacon led a Gloucester side that dropped one place to fourth following Northampton's win at Newcastle last night. But the visitors needed just six minutes to make their presence felt, storming into the lead when Morgan sprinted over from 30 metres after Fuimaono-Sapolu's pass sent him clear.
Burns added the extras, yet Leicester drew level within two minutes through a try that had its origins in Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni chasing a steepling Twelvetrees kick. The Italy international clattered Morgan through a mighty challenge – it resulted in Morgan going off injured, clutching his right arm – and Leicester swiftly moved possession wide for Hamilton to cross.
Flood converted from the touchline and then kicked a penalty as Leicester edged ahead, but Gloucester were in no mood to play second fiddle and they soon regained the lead.
Burns was the architect of their second try, taking a quick penalty that caught Leicester's defence napping that enabled the equally-dangerous Fuimaono-Sapolu to touch down without a Tigers playing touching him. A Burns conversion made it 14-10, and although a Flood penalty cut the deficit, Gloucester were good value for their advantage as Burns' opening three-pointer confirmed an interval lead.
Leicester came out firing for the second period though, and Tuilagi showcased his trademark power by crashing from close-range before blasting through a retreating Gloucester defence barely 100 seconds later. Flood converted both scores to put Tigers in charge, and they sensed a bonus point despite Burns' second penalty making it 27-20 and ensuring the visitors retained a fighting chance.
There appeared no way back when Tuilagi rounded off a sweeping handling move to complete his hat-trick, yet a brilliant Matt Cox pass enabled his back-row colleague Hazell to scamper away and ensure a tense closing quarter. And Gloucester were not finished, as Molenaar's touchdown – converted by Burns – hauled them level before Tigers number eight Thomas Waldrom stormed clear and sent Twelvetrees over.
It was frantic, breathless entertainment for a capacity 24,000 crowd, but Gloucester had the final word when Staunton's intended pass to Waldrom found the visitors' Samoan midfield star instead, and Leicester were denied.