Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton kicked English champions Leicester out of Europe in a Heineken Cup quarter-final that bristled with Test match intensity.
Sexton, who booted 14 points when Ireland ended England's Six Nations Grand Slam hopes three weeks ago, came up trumps again at the Aviva Stadium. But battling Leicester will feel aggrieved that wing Alesana Tuilagi's 43rd-minute 'touchdown' was cancelled out by the video referee when it looked as though he had staved off great defensive work by Leinster flanker Sean O'Brien.
Leinster full-back Isa Nacewa then scored a try just six minutes later, yet Sexton's four penalties underpinned the 2009 European champions' triumph and booked a semi-final in Ireland later this month against Biarritz or Toulouse. Toby Flood booted a penalty for Leicester and converted substitute hooker Rob Hawkins' late try, but he also missed a second-half penalty sitter on another miserable Dublin evening for Tigers' England contingent.
Leicester's defeat leaves their midlands rivals Northampton as the sole English survivors in this season's Heineken Cup. Saints face Ulster in Milton Keynes. It also dashed their hopes of a third European and domestic double following all-conquering achievements in 2001 and 2002, but they could have no real complaints after Leinster won most of the key individual battles.
Leicester also struggled badly in the lineouts, and although Tigers remain favourites to complete an Aviva Premiership Rugby title hat-trick this term, the blue riband European prize has again passed them by. The visitors lacked nothing in terms of courage or commitment, yet Leinster were able to absorb everything Leicester threw at them, and they appear a strong bet to reach next month's final in Cardiff.
Leicester will take little comfort from possibly bowing out to the eventual tournament winners, but few sides could have lived with Leinster's unremitting ferocity – with and without possession. Leinster paraded eight of the Ireland team accounted for England last month, including game-breakers Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip.
The Leicester line-up included five England players who were involved that day, while an enforced change saw Boris Stankovich replace Marcos Ayerza, who was sent off in last weekend's Premiership game against Harlequins and hit with a two-week ban.
Conditions were perfect for running rugby, and Leinster began as though they meant business with Nacewa and wing Luke Fitzgerald linking superbly to send flanker Kevin McLaughlin within sight of Leicester's line. Sexton, who had taken a heavy blow during the move, recovered to kick an opening penalty, but Flood matched his strike just two minutes later.
Sexton's second successful penalty after 14 minutes enjoyed a considerable slice of fortune as it ricocheted off both posts before dropping over the bar, sparking memories of Leicester full-back Tim Stimpson's winning kick against Heineken semi-final opponents Llanelli in Nottingham nine years ago.
Leinster should have ended a frantic opening quarter by breaching Leicester's defence, but after creating line-breaking space, Fitzgerald spilled a scoring pass from hooker Richardt Strauss. It was a let-off for the Tigers, who struggled to contain Leinster's marauders at the breakdown, but they stormed back upfield and enjoyed sustained pressure before conceding a penalty inside the Leinster 22.
Leicester suffered an injury blow 12 minutes before the break when their England lock Louis Deacon was forced off – Ed Slater replaced him – and there remained little between the teams in a punishing clash dominated by two aggressive defences.
A third Sexton penalty pushed Leinster 9-3 ahead as the interval approached and his escalating authority on the game was then underlined by a raking touchfinder that landed deep inside Leicester territory.
Leicester began the second period in determined mood, and they kept pressing despite the morale-sapping decision that denied Tuilagi a try. Unfortunately for the Tigers though, it also woke Leinster up, and Nacewa struck a telling blow when he cut inside Manu Tuilagi before keeping three Tigers defenders at bay for a 49th-minute touchdown.
It proved the defining moment of a tie that Leinster deserved to win on the basis that they enjoyed longer periods of dominance in attack and defence than their opponents could muster. And in the unforgiving world of knockout rugby, Leicester were punished for finding no way of releasing that stranglehold, Tuilagi's disallowed effort apart and a late flourish after Hawkins crossed from close range.