Richard Cockerill guided his Leicester Tigers side into their second final in a week as they beat Bath 24-10 in their GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP last-four encounter.
Dan Hipkiss, Sam Vesty and Lewis Moody scored the tries as Leicester took their place in the showpiece match for the second year running. And this time there was no need for the sort of historic penalty shoot-out which saw Leicester into the Heineken Cup final at the expense of Cardiff Blues last week. This was a much more emphatic victory to complete a heady three weeks since Cockerill was confirmed as Leicester head coach.
The teams had met four times already this season and while Leicester had won three, none of the encounters had been won by more than five points. Leicester v Bath is almost always like that. One of rugby’s traditional firefights. The Manchester United v Arsenal of the rugby world. The big question was whether Leicester would have the legs after last week’s energy-sapping victory.
That worry proved groundless and after a cagey start the scoreboard clicked into action when Leicester centre Hipkiss showed a mean sidestep and considerable upper body strength to burst through two defenders for the first touchdown, converted by Julien Dupuy.
It was only fitting that Hipkiss should show Leicester the way after fracturing his cheekbone in last season’s GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP final against Wasps, an injury which saw him miss England’s tour of New Zealand.
Bath had their moments in those early skirmishes. But it was always Leicester who were more creative with Geordan Murphy a constant threat from full-back and fly-half Vesty, in for the injured Toby Flood, giving his threequarters every chance to run.
The Tigers should have been out of sight by half-time with Marcos Ayerza having a try disallowed for a forward pass and Geordan Murphy missing out by inches in a chase to the line with Shontayne Hape. As it was they still went in with a 14-0 advantage, courtesy of their second touchdown, this time for Vesty who blasted through two Bath threequarters after 37 minutes to be enveloped in a delirious duvet of Tigers team-mates. A little early for celebration, perhaps.
It looked that way when Leicester lock Tom Croft went off for a blood injury early in the second half to be replaced by Marco Wentzel and when Bath scrum-half Michael Claassens burrowed over from close range to reduce the arrears. But Leicester have experienced old warhorses like World Cup-winner Ben Kay to steady the nerves and occasionally dish out the discipline when the ship begins to rock.
Kay did just that, ticking off several of his team-mates, including Martin Castrogiovanni, when they appeared more intent on settling old scores with the opposition than improving the scorebard. Dupuy stretched Leicester’s lead with a penalty but then Bath number eight Stuart Hooper powered over in the corner after some silky passing amid the threequarters.
At 17-10 the match was still in the balance but then came the score which effectively ended it as a contest. Johne Murphy scampered down the wing and punted the ball forward, only to be taken out cynically by Bath full-back Nick Abendanon. No matter, Moody was on hand to chase down the kick and fall over the line for the score which broke Bath hearts.
Time to give Johne Murphy a breather, but as Cockerill shouted the winger’s name into his headset from high in the stand the message was picked up on the touchline as Geordan Murphy and so the Leicester captain was replaced by mistake. It left Cockerill shaking his head in frustration. In truth it was the only thing which went wrong for Leicester all afternoon.