A late try from replacement Greg Bateman combined with a mammoth defensive effort sent holders Exeter Chiefs into a second successive LV= Cup final.
Time and again Exeter turned over the ball and forced errors from a Tigers side that, despite falling to a loss was looking very lively in the back-line.
Michele Rizzo’s score made good on a promising Leicester opening but Elvis Taione and Fetu’u Vainikolo had responded with tries inside 20 minutes.
A composed Tommy Bell collected 17 points with his boot for the hosts but opposing fly-half Ceri Sweeney was on target with three penalties and three conversions – before Bateman finished the job late on to take Exeter into a Franklin’s Gardens final with Saracens.
Led by skipper Seb de Chaves, the home side made a ferocious start and it was Bell at fly-half who opened the door with just five minutes played.
His clever misdirection pass set away Miles Benjamin and from the ensuing break, Rizzo scooped up the ball to bulldoze his way across and Bell converted.
Leicester remained on top but a Bell penalty rebounded off the posts and fell into the arms of Vainikolo.
The ball eventually made its way out to Max Bodilly who smashed through the Tigers’ line, and only a superb cover tackle from George Catchpole stopped Tom James from racing away for a try.
The momentum had swung the Chiefs’ way however and they drove towards the whitewash after Sweeney kicked to the corner.
An Exeter maul dropped over the try-line but it needed a second attempt from hooker Taione to ground the ball, with Sweeney’s extras trying the scores.
Bell nailed a superb long-range penalty moments later though disaster struck for the Tigers when a risky Laurence Pearce pass was picked off by Vainikolo.
The Tongan stormed through unopposed and Sweeney’s simple conversion saw Exeter establish a four-point lead.
Leicester weren’t about to panic as Bell’s kicks from hand continued to cause the visitors all sorts of trouble. Brad Thorn then won a penalty in prime position and Bell promptly cut the deficit down to one.
The Chiefs’ maul was proving a mighty weapon and Leicester conceded another penalty in the face of it to gift Sweeney another three points – Bell responded in kind after an indiscretion at scrumtime.
Sweeney landed the last blow of the half however after Leicester were pinged in the ruck.
The kicking duel resumed in the first half but Bell blinked first, skewing a penalty wide following another successful Sweeney effort before he redeemed himself with a drop-goal.
Leicester began to look dangerous again – particularly when the ball reached the hands of the lively Catchpole – and though they won a close-range penalty, Mitch Lees swooped on a ruck to force a crucial turnover.
They put themselves back under pressure however when Bodilly got sin-binned and Bell cut down the deficit to one once more with the penalty.
Scrum-half Sam Harrison’s introduction opened up the gaps further and the telling moment nearly came when he sent Miles Benjamin away, who offloaded to Neil Briggs.
The hulking forward didn’t have the gas before the ball reached Brad Thorn, and the World Cup-winning lock was left kicking himself after deciding to go alone with Catchpole uncovered on the outside. Leicester then gave away a cheap penalty after going in at the side.
The impressive Kai Horstmann won key turnover ball and 14-man Exeter kept forcing errors from Leicester, despite a number of promising breaks.
And Chiefs trusted their forward power to get them over the line at the other end, as a driving maul fittingly wrapped up victory for the Chiefs in the 75th minute.
Sweeney kicked a penalty to the corner and hooker Bateman was at hand to apply the final touch, his Welsh fly-half converting to take the tie out of Leicester’s reach.