Leicester Tigers booked an Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final date at The Rec with a victory over Northampton Saints that was built on pack power.
Leicester welcomed their Aviva Premiership Rugby rivals to Welford Road in control of their own fate, knowing victory would extend their campaign beyond the regular season for the 11th straight year.
Jordan Crane grabbed the only try of the first half but three James Wilson penalties sent Saints – already guaranteed top spot in the league – into half-time with a narrow lead.
However, the Leicester scrum – and front row in particular – took control after the break, forcing referee Matthew Carley to brandish a pair of quickfire yellow cards in Saints’ direction.
Niall Morris then added a second try and despite Tom Stephenson crossing over for the visitors late on, the Tigers cemented third place to line up a semi-final clash with Bath Rugby.
Freddie Burns opened the scoring from the tee on six minutes after James Craig was caught offside but the Saints regrouped and soon found their way up the other end.
And when Dan Cole – going head-to-head with England teammate Alex Corbisiero in the front row – was penalised for collapsing a scrum in front of the posts, fly-half Wilson levelled things up.
Cole almost made amends two minutes later, only to be halted narrowly when diving for the line, but they didn’t have to wait long for the try.
Crane caught an attacking lineout before peeling off the resulting maul and down the blind side, sneaking over the whitewash just before being shunted into touch – though Burns’ conversion went wide.
Wilson reduced the gap to two after Brad Thorn was caught offside and handed them the lead on 25 minutes when Mr Carley spotted Leicester hands in the ruck.
Saints preserved their narrow advantage until the break and, with Saracens and Exeter Chiefs both leading elsewhere, Leicester sat fifth in the table with just 40 minutes of rugby to be played.
However, that lasted less than two second-half minutes as Burns edged Leicester back in front – and into the top four – from the tee.
Ben Youngs thought he had put some daylight between the teams by darting over from close range but TMO Rowan Kitt ruled that Sam Dickinson and Corbisiero had done enough to stop him just short.
Relentless Leicester pressure in the scrum then saw Salesi Ma’afu replaced by Gareth Denman but he lasted just two minutes before being sent to the sin bin.
Ma’afu soon returned to the pitch only to join Denman in the bin and with Saints down to 13 men, Burns added three points with a simple penalty to make it 14-9.
Their second try followed not long after, Thorn stealing a Saints lineout and Morris eventually getting his hands on the ball and darting through to score. Burns hit the post with the conversion.
Tommy Bell replaced Burns and immediately slotted a penalty to extend the lead but Saints hit back five minutes from time, Stephenson darting through to score – but Sam Olver missed the extras to leave them eight points adrift and out of time to stage a late comeback.