An inspired display from George Ford helped Leicester Tigers come from behind to beat Ulster 33-24 as they secured their place in the Challenge Cup final.
Coming into the game, it was unclear exactly what to expect from these two sides. Leicester are less than a week removed from a home loss at the hands of their East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints, whilst Ulster’s last game saw them suffer a defeat against Connacht in the Rainbow Cup.
But early on, it became blatantly clear that both teams have found their safe place in the Challenge Cup. Whilst Ford did nudge the Tigers ahead, it didn’t take long at all for momentum to swing back to Ulster.
The province’s scrum-half, John Cooney, struck a penalty over at the first time at asking and after a yellow card for Tigers’ skipper Tom Youngs, Ulster would cross the whitewash.
The try came in the form of Iain Henderson, the 29-year-old powering over from short range after a succession of Leicester penalties. Ford hit back with a monstrous penalty from what was virtually the halfway line, but again, Ulster would leap ahead with their next try coming from Billy Burns.
With no more scores before the break, it certainly felt as though one of the teams needed to take the game by the scruff of the neck with neither side having been overly dominant in the first half.
Within minutes of the second period starting, Leicester made it clear they were hoping to be that side. Jasper Wiese finished off a flowing move that had begun with the barrelling Nemani Nadolo and that try would be backed up by a score for England’s Ellis Genge.
After getting the lead, it became all about conserving that hard-fought advantage for the Tigers and building on it wherever possible. Ford's drop goal was a testament to this and with the nine-point lead, Steve Borthwick's men seemed comfortable to absorb wave after wave of Ulster attacks.
Eventually, that pressure wore down the Red, Green and White walls ahead of them as Nick Timoney raced over for a converted try. Now a one-point game again, it was clear that momentum had swung in favour of the Irishmen.
For a time, it seemed that Ulster were set to score another, their abrasive pack consistently breaking the gain line, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, it was Leicester who pushed ahead some more. Another well-worked score by the hosts was this time finished off by Guy Porter and the conversion from Ford was ice cold from the touchline.
That would be the final nail in the coffin and Leicester are on their way to Twickenham for their first final in four years.
Joe Harvey’s Thoughts
Coming into this game, I was expecting these thoughts to be about potential British and Irish Lions. Instead, I’m thinking about the next generation of England players.
Yes, George Ford was very good for Leicester and yes, Rob Herring was hugely impressive for Ulster and each could be bolters next week, but they always were. Nothing has changed there.
As soon as that became apparent, my eyes were drawn to the younger English names representing Leicester.
First and foremost in my mind is their full-back Freddie Steward. At 20-years-old, he is a striking image on the pitch at 6’5”, but whilst that might make you think he has a turning circle of an Evergreen vessel, the truth is far different.
Excellent in the air, quick, with good hands and a good boot, everything about the youngster makes me think he can be the answer to the often asked question of who is the heir apparent in the No.15 jersey.
Elliot Daly has flattered to deceive, the George Furbank experiment failed and Mike Brown, on the whole, still looks like the best full-back in England apart from Steward.
He’s very much in a league of his own and George Martin is somewhat similar. Only playing 40 minutes tonight, the England international didn’t put a foot wrong.
He reminds you of Mako Vunipola in a way; seemingly breathless from minute one, but in reality, he has energy to burn and will be one of your most reliable performers. Perhaps the only thing you’d have to say about him at this formative stage of his career is that a trot out at lock wouldn’t go amiss. No doubt his international future will most likely be there with the form of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill unwavering at present.
Then coming off the bench this evening was Joe Heyes. When watching him in the past, you have wondered whether he could cut it at Test level with his scrummaging sometimes lacking. As the months have passed by following the Premiership’s restart last summer, that facet of his game has improved hugely and it is understandable why he has taken part in several England camps already.
But anyway, that’s enough rambling from me at this hour on a Friday night.
Haven’t even had a pint. Yet.
Leicester: Steward; Porter, Moroni, Scott, Nadolo; Ford, Wigglesworth; Genge, T Youngs (c), Cole, Wells, Green, Martin, Liebenberg, Wiese.
Replacements: Clare, De Bruin, Heyes, Lavanini, Brink, B Youngs, Henry, Murimurivalu.
Ulster: Stockdale; Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, McIlroy; Burns, Cooney; O'Sullivan, Herring, Moore, Henderson (c), A O'Connor; Rea, Murphy, Timoney.
Replacements: Andrew, Warwick, O'Toole, Treadwell, Reidy, Mathewson, Lowry, Addison.