Freddie Burns scored 20 points as Leicester Tigers claimed a 30-24 victory over Northampton Saints in a fiery East Midlands Derby at Franklin’s Gardens.
Tigers’ win confirms Exeter Chiefs’ first ever top four finish and leaves Saints seven points adrift of fourth-placed Leicester with two games remaining.
Harry Thacker’s superb individual score lit up a previously tight first-half before the excellent Teimana Harrison replied for Jim Mallinder’s side, but a loose Luther Burrell off-load handed Vereniki Goneva an interception try that restored Tigers’ advantage.
A tighter second-half sprung to life when George Pisi muscled over and Burns sealed victory when he finished a brilliant team move from Tigers, though Saints rallied superbly at the end.
Cockerill’s side look certain to finish in the top four and victory of any kind against Worcester Warriors at Welford Road in Round 21 will see them return to the Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-finals.
Marcos Ayerza, Dan Cole and Thacker initially got the upper-hand in a keenly-anticipated scrum battle, winning a penalty which Burns knocked over after ten minutes.
Thacker then turned the tide in Tigers’ favour with a moment of magic after 14 minutes, the hooker bellied the number on his back as he attacked blind from half-way, stepped through the Saints line, and then with Goneva in support gave a hint of show and turned on the after-burners to go under the posts. Burns converted.
Tigers looked galvanized by the score and Thacker continued to excel with ball-in-hand, while Dom Barrow thumped away at the Saints line and Goneva was at his electric best.
It was a superb turnover from loosehead Alex Waller that brought Saints back into the game before Stephen Myler got Saints on the board with a penalty inside the 22.
With Northampton building nicely, Burrell hit a superb line against the grain to burst through the Leicester line, but was hauled down short and when the ball was recycled Harrison went over for a score which Myler converted from the touchline.
Northampton looked to be running riot as Tom Wood made a break down the touch-line, but as they moved back across field, Burrell was caught in possession and carelessly threw a blind off-load which Goneva picked off and the giant Fijian was free to canter home from inside his own half. Burns converted to put Tigers 17-10 ahead after 28 minutes.
To Saints credit, they appeared unflustered by the Leicester sucker-punch and Courtney Lawes’ excellent take from the restart put them on the front foot once more and Harrison was almost through in midfield, only for Leicester to reorganise and repel the attack.
Myler pegged Tigers back with a penalty just on the stroke of half-time.
Burns then restored Leicester’s seven-point buffer six minutes into the second-half, but it was Northampton who continued to grow into the game.
Scrum-half Tom Kessell was dictating tempo superbly for Saints in the absence of Lee Dickson and as he ratcheted up the intensity.
Tigers conceded a flurry of penalties close to their line and with the pressure mounting, Pisi was eventually able to cross in the corner, but Myler failed to draw the scores level after a nervy-looking conversion attempt.
Burns and Myler then traded penalties before Leicester took charge as the game moved into its final quarter.
It was the Tigers fly-half who made easy yards through the Northampton mid-field before Ben Youngs picked up the attacking pace and a powerful Goneva pick and go took them within five yards.
As they attacked the blind-side, a sharp Manu Tuilagi pass cut out the Saints blitz and sent Burns over. He then added the extras to move Tigers to 30-21 with 15 minutes remaining.
Substitute JJ Hanrahan's penalty brought Saints within a score to set up a grand-stand finish, but they were unable to get a decisive third try.