England scrum-half Ben Youngs nudged Leicester towards a Heineken Cup quarter-final place as his solo try helped them beat the Scarlets 32-18 in an epic Pool Five encounter.
Youngs’ 40-metre dash for glory, which followed an Alesana Tuilagi touchdown 10 minutes earlier, means a bonus point victory over Welford Road visitors Treviso next Sunday should be enough to see Tigers progress as group winners or one of two best runners-up.
If Perpignan beat the Scarlets and claim a five-point maximum in France, they will win the pool, but twice European champions Leicester can still expect to progress if they carry out a ruthless Italian job.
England fly-half Toby Flood kept the scoreboard ticking with five penalties and a conversion for 17 points at a windswept Parc-y-Scarlets, although the home side led 10-6 at half-time following wing Morgan Stoddart’s try. Stephen Jones added two penalties and a conversion, while Sean Lamont claimed an injury-time touchdown, but the Scarlets ultimately proved unable to avenge a 46-10 drubbing in Leicester three months ago.
Tigers substitute Steve Mafi finished the Scarlets off with a 79th-minute try, although Lamont had the final word, albeit an irrelevant one.
Leicester scored 26 points after the break, silencing the majority of a record 12,392 Scarlets’ Heineken Cup crowd, proving their current status as clear Aviva Premiership leaders is no fluke. Flood’s kicking, the finishing power of Youngs and Tuilagi, plus workaholic performances by flanker Thomas Waldrom and number eight Jordan Crane left the Welsh side’s quarter-final hopes hanging by a thread.
They will need to beat Perpignan emphatically and, in that unlikely event, the Scarlets will view this defeat as the game when their chances went west. But Leicester remain firmly on course for a 10th quarter-final appearance, leaving the Scarlets to reflect on a case of what might have been.
Jones’ return for his first start since suffering a knee injury before Christmas lifted the Scarlets in their quest to topple Aviva Premiership Rugby leaders Leicester, but centre Regan King (calf muscle) was a late withdrawal, being replaced by Gareth Maule.
The Tigers were without captain Geordan Murphy because of a serious ankle problem, so Scott Hamilton – who recently returned from getting married in New Zealand – deputised at full-back, with England lock Louis Deacon taking over as skipper.
Conditions looked set to dictate the contest, but both sides blasted out of the blocks by producing sustained passages of attacking play before Leicester went ahead in ominous fashion. It took the Tigers barely 10 minutes to showcase their scrummaging power, and such dominance gained its reward through a penalty that Flood slotted from short range.
Flood doubled Leicester’s advantage when Scarlets full-back Rhys Priestland was harshly punished for obstruction on Alesana Tuilagi, yet the home stirred to conjure a stunning 19th-minute try. Jonathan Davies, the form centre in Welsh rugby, burst clear from deep inside his own half, leaving would-be Leicester tacklers trailing before Stoddart rewarded Davies’ brilliance by touching down.
Jones converted from the touchline, putting Leicester 7-6 behind and cranking up the intensity even further of a pulsating battle between two fiercely-committed teams. The Scarlets thought they had extended their lead 10 minutes later, but referee Alain Rolland denied Maule, ruling a double movement against him as he rumbled over Leicester’s line.
It was another vivid warning for the Tigers though, as they struggled to contain their opponents’ raw power built on an imposing platform provided by flankers Josh Turnbull and Rob McCusker. A Jones penalty took the Scarlets into double figures, and they ended the first half in complete control, camped inside Leicester’s 22.
Scarlets prop Simon Gardiner almost scored in the corner – he was denied by a crunching double tackle with the line in sight – but Leicester then conceded another penalty, only for Jones to drift it narrowly wide.
Flood and Jones launched the second period by exchanging penalties before Leicester stung their hosts through Tuilagi’s try that followed outstanding approach work by centre Anthony Allen and a scoring assist from hooker George Chuter. Youngs then struck his telling blow – although referee Rolland missed a couple of Leicester infringements during the build-up – before another Flood penalty made it 22-13 and gave Leicester their first hint of breathing space.
Waldrom was sin-binned during the closing minutes, yet Leicester had already done enough and once again proved their rich European pedigree by claiming a priceless win on enemy soil, their dominance underlined through Mafi’s late close-range effort.