Leicester cruised into the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP final – and booked a title shoot-out with Sale Sharks at Twickenham – by demolishing form team London Irish at Welford Road.
The Tigers, who were last crowned English champions four years ago, left Irish reeling by building a 15-point interval advantage through tries from wing Alesana Tuilagi and scrum-half Harry Ellis.
And there was no way back for the Exiles, whose hopes of Premiership glory were dashed by a first away league defeat since Leicester crushed them 35-3 in November.
Brian Smith’s men could not scale the heights attained in a show-stopping display against deposed champions Wasps two weeks ago, and if anything, the whole occasion seemed a game too far.
Second-half touchdowns by substitute wing Leon Lloyd, who claimed a quickfire double, and full-back Geordan Murphy finished off a lacklustre Irish outfit, while fly-half Andy Goode booted three penalties and three conversions.
Leicester, crushed in the play-off final by Wasps last season when England legends Martin Johnson and Neil Back saw their illustrious careers draw to an unsatisfactory close, have their sights firmly set on silverware.
With Wasps out of the way, Leicester will fancy the job at English rugby headquarters on May 27, especially if Marin Corry and his fellow forwards can establish a similar level of dominance that reduced Irish to a shadow of their recent selves.
Irish were left to survive on scraps, but they could only manage an Olivier Magne try and Mike Catt penalty as Leicester ran riot.
Leicester established early domination, pinning Irish in their own half as they looked to move possession wide and utilise the attacking prowess of top Premiership try-scorer Tom Varndell and full-back Murphy.
Irish could make little territorial impression, and Goode opened Leicester’s account through a sixth-minute penalty after his opening 40-metre strike four minutes earlier brushed off the post and drifted wide.
Tigers centre Ollie Smith, a candidate to visit Australia with England next month, required treatment for an ankle injury before he was able, somewhat gingerly, to continue, as Irish were reduced to 14 men.
Scrum-half Paul Hodgson, frustrated by Leicester’s control, waded feet-first into a ruck and referee Dave Pearson sin-binned him for stamping.
It was a reckless move by Hodgson, and Leicester made him pay just two minutes later, utilising blindside space for Samoan wing Tuilagi to crash over from close range.
Goode effortlessly slotted the touchline conversion, and Irish’s bubble was in grave danger of bursting as they trailed 10-0 after 15 minutes.
The Exiles just could not make their presence felt, underlined when fly-half Riki Flutey botched a 40-metre penalty chance before a usually unflappable Catt booted possession straight into touch from just inside Leicester’s half.
No sooner, though, had Hodgson returned to the action than Tigers’ England lock Ben Kay was yellow-carded following a technical infringement, and Irish immediately made Leicester pay.
Samoan centre Dominic Feau’nati utilised all his strength to break tackles deep inside Tigers’ 22, and Magne cashed in, touching down for a score that Flutey could not convert, but it at last announced Irish’s arrival following a miserable opening.
Leicester should have scored again on the half-hour mark, but Varndell found his path to the line blocked by a stunning Sailosi Tagicakibau tackle.
Tigers sensed they could breach their opponents’ defence again as half-time approached, and a second try arrived when Ellis weaved his way over from 35 metres, leaving Irish with a mountain to climb as Goode’s conversion and long-range penalty made it 20-5 at the break.
Ellis departed the action less than a minute into the second period, being replaced by Austin Healey, then a bloodied Corry trooped off, with Will Johnson entering the fray before Ellis returned and Healey made an emotional departure on his final Welford Road appearance as a full-time professional.
Catt reduced the deficit by slotting an easy penalty, yet Goode soon restored a 15-point gap and Leicester entered the final quarter in familiar control.
Lloyd’s interception score – he gratefully accepted Catt’s speculative pass with his first touch of the ball – then a Murphy breakaway and a second Lloyd run-in left Irish demoralised, rendering the closing stages purely academic after Tigers had bared their teeth in menacing fashion for a mouth-watering showdown with the Sharks.