Reigning champions Leicester reached their fourth successive GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP final after recording a stunning last-gasp victory against Gloucester.
Fly-half Andy Goode’s injury-time drop-goal clinched a dramatic semi-final success after full-back Willie Walker had inched the home side ahead at Kingsholm.
Gloucester, despite topping the regular 22-game Premiership season for a third time in six seasons, once again blew it as Leicester became the first side in the six-year history of the play-offs to record an away victory.
While Tigers can now look forward to meeting Wasps at Twickenham on May 31, their opponents must reflect on another campaign that saw them fall painfully short.
Ryan Lamb 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.
Lamb kicked 17 points, while Leicester lost the plot to such an extent that they were reduced to 13 men in the first half after number eight Jordan Crane and scrum-half Harry Ellis were sin-binned in quick succession. But second-half tries from wing Alesana Tuilagi and centre Aaron Mauger ensured the visitors made it an uncomfortable afternoon for the home side.
Although Gloucester were some way below their best, Lamb – on his 22nd birthday – appeared to have done enough. He kicked 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 axed England wing Lesley Vainikolo – seemed enough to end Leicester’s reign as Premiership champions.
But 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. 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 evenly-matched 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 forward 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.
Goode cut the gap to six points when he found his range from 45 metres early in the second period, then Gloucester were rocked by a Tuilagi try that Goode converted to set up a nailbiting final quarter.
At 15-13 ahead, Gloucester found themselves under escalating pressure, and they still could not relax when Simpson-Daniel struck.
Mauger profited from poor work by Lamb and Balshaw, pouncing in the shadow of Gloucester’s posts. Goode converted and then struck a penalty that edged Tigers ahead for the first time.
Lamb missed a touchline penalty six minutes from time, and then it was case of all hands to the pump.
Walker slotted a drop-goal, but deep into injury-time Goode matched him and Leicester stole a remarkable one-point triumph.