Two scintillating matches were played on Saturday, both ending as comprehensive victories, concealing the stories that had unfolded on the pitch.
The first match of the day saw Leicester Tigers, fresh from their monumental Heineken Cup semi-final victory, taking on the Bath team they had beaten a fortnight before in equally emotional fashion. The safe bet was always on Leicester to carry on their fantastic form but as the match drew closer doubts over who would be the fitter and more motivated of the two sides were starting to creep in.
Those doubts were short lived as Leicester began the match in arguably better form than they had ended their nail-biter against Cardiff with Sam Vesty controlling play far more assuredly than his counterpart Ryan Davis. Leicester looked like they would win the match at a canter going into the break 14 – 0 ahead with the knowledge that one more try would be the knockout blow for Bath.
However it was Bath who emerged fighting after the break and their pressure on the Leicester line told when Claasens timed his pick and go to perfection, just as Ben Woods, the Leicester flanker, had been distracted by the outside men to open up enough of a gap to scoot through. The score went unconverted and Dupuy hit back with a penalty only for Bath to score again through Stuart Hooper who finished an overlap with ease.
Again the score went unconverted and 17 – 10 was as close as Bath were to get as Leicester re-focused and replacement Lewis Moody raced onto a chip from Geordan Murphy to seal the victory, 24 – 10.
Leicester are now in touching distance of another double and should they achieve it questions may be asked as to why the form team of Europe have only one player represented in the Lions squad. Geordan Murphy’s performance in this match was almost perfect except for one fumble receiving a punt downfield whilst running at full pace. Dan Hipkiss and Tom Croft also played some fantastic rugby.
Meeting Leicester in the final will be London Irish who also increased their performance levels from the last few weeks of the regular season in demolishing a desperate Harlequins side. The difference between London Irish and Harlequins manifested itself at the breakdown and at the crucial position of fly-half, where there was a tantalising match up between Mike Catt and Nick Evans.
The first-half was very even and both sides’ nerves became apparent as 5 attempts at goal were missed. Despite the teams’ attempts to attack and score tries the other biggest talking point of the half was a very unfortunate mis-timed collision between Adam Thomstone and Ugo Monye that saw the soon-to-be Lion fall directly on his neck. Luckily he emerged slightly shaken but unscathed and went on to produce a measured display, including what is fast becoming his trademark cover tackle extraordinaire to stop a certain try for Delon Armitage.
In the second-half the brawn and force slowly peeled away and we were left with which side would have the nerve and tactical nous to make the breakthrough and cement a lead. Irish turned to their coach-player Catt and he responded in fine style, ably assisted by the astute kicking of Peter Hewat and the defensive leadership of Delon Armitage, not to mention a pack who had been eating turnover-berries all week.
Time and again, Irish pinned Quins deep in their own 22 and whenever they tried to kick or run it out of defence, Irish would regain possession and keep drilling them deeper and deeper. Eventually the pressure told with Catt collecting the ball on the Quins 22-metre line and picking the onrushing James Hudson to cut a perfect line through the overstretched Quins defence and touchdown under the posts.
The conversion added to an earlier penalty, both by Delon Armitage, resulting in a 10 – 0 lead and Irish didn’t let Quins off the hook. Time was slipping by and with Nick Evans, looking very tired and very injured, eventually being substituted by Lunveniyali, Quins started attacking from anywhere and everywhere.
Unfortunately for the home side, a quick tap penalty deep in their own half was hurled out wide by Andy Gomarsall which the canny Catt picked off for an interception try under the posts. The nail was finally in the coffin and Irish were through.
In the end, it was an unfair comparison between Evans and Catt as it was evident that whilst Catt might have been stiff and tired from being an old man, Evans was only playing at about 60% and wasn’t able to steer the game in Quins’ favour.
If Irish are able to play to a similar level in the final, which will be a big ask given that it’s their first, they could give Leicester an almighty scare.