Tigers and Blues set up semi-final showdown
April 11, 2009
Leicester's George Chuter celebrates the match-winning try by team mate Julien Dupuy © Getty Images
Ben Blair Julien Dupuy Thierry Dusautoir Leigh Halfpenny Butch James Gethin Jenkins Michael Lipman Joe Maddock Frederic Michalak Jamie Roberts David Skrela Sam Vesty Dai Young
Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers will meet in this season's Heineken Cup semi-finals after a dramatic day of knock-out action in Europe's premier club competition.
Leicester defeated Bath 20-15 at the Walkers Stadium to set up a mouth-watering showdown with the Blues who booked their place in the final four earlier in the day with a narrow 9-6 win over Toulouse at the Millennium Stadium.
Leicester were forced in to a late reshuffle when England fly-half Toby Flood was ruled out of the game with a dead leg, Sam Vesty switching to fly-half and Ayoola Erinle taking the No.12 jersey. The early exchanges were tentative, Vesty and Nick Abendanon swapping excellent early kicks and the forwards feeling each other out in the tight through several sets of short, precise gainline moves.
It took until the 20-minute mark for the deadlock to be broken, Vesty slotting an excellent penalty after Abendanon had been pinged for holding on. Just over a minute later Vesty and the Tigers extended their lead with a second penalty as Bath began to come under pressure at the breakdown.
Both Leicester's scrum-half Harry Ellis and his opposite number Michael Claassens were mischievous at the base of the scrum, and Claassens won Bath their first shot at goal after half an hour. Butch James, who had a nightmare with the boot against Harlequins last weekend, continued his wretched kicking form and pulled the chance hopelessly wide.
Bath continued to fall apart when they wasted a penalty seconds later, kicking aimlessly dead when they had a chance to put the Tigers under pressure, and James made no real ground from another as half-time approached. Ironically, James' profligacy was forgotten as Shontayne Hape sliced through the Tigers' 10-12 channel, the former rugby league international keeping his head to send Shaun Berne under the posts. James converted for a 7-6 half-time lead.
James extended Bath's lead with a penalty shortly after the break as Bath started brightly. The Tigers then lost lock Louis Deacon to a knee injury before Vesty struck his third penalty to bring his side back to within a point.
As the noise inside the stadium built Leicester's possession increased and Vesty added another penalty to reflect their dominance with the lead on the scoreboard. Again however, Bath's knack for finding the try-line turned the game back in to their favour. Following a charge-down on the Tigers' 22 from Lee Mears and some superb work from skipper Michael Lipman the ball was spun wide to Joe Maddock, who stepped under Ben Kay's swinging arm to score.
Vesty, nerveless all afternoon, levelled the scores with another penalty soon after before both sides went all out for the win in the closing stages. Abendanon left the field with an injury after a late hit from Alesana Tuilagi as the game descended in to mayhem, with passes forced and chances missed by both sides.
It was Leicester's replacement scrum-half Julien Dupuy who claimed the glory for his side, rolling out of a ruck and haring away through the Bath defence, stepping Maddock and scoring under the sticks for a dramatic win.
"It was great foresight from Julien," Vesty said after the game. "There was nothing on, he did the 360 degree swivel and managed to get it under the posts - elation. I am surprised we have got any supporters left. They must have heart attacks every week the way we keep leaving it to the last minute."
Three penalties from fullback Ben Blair and a superb defensive display ensured the Blues progressed to the region's first-ever semi-final clash that will be on the same familiar ground in the Welsh capital. Perennial challengers Toulouse were denied their eighth semi-final appearance in 10 years as the Blues blunted their much-heralded attack and limited them to just two penalties - one each for fly-half Frederic Michalak and his replacement David Skrela.
Two successful kicks from Blair and another from Michalak were the only scores in a tense and physical opening period as a match billed as a close contest on paper looked like sticking to the script.
The Blues began brightly and an early infringement from Toulouse allowed Blair to put the hosts ahead with barely a minute on the clock. But they were soon guilty of being too ambitious with Xavier Rush running into trouble before the Blues were penalised for their attempts to secure the ball. As tempers flared in the aftermath of the decision, Michalak stepped up to slot the kick and level the scores.
The Blues' Leigh Halfpenny was just off-target with a long-range penalty attempt on the quarter-hour and his side were then immediately on the back foot with a slick multi-phase move taking Toulouse downfield and to within yards of the host's' line. The pressure forced the penalty from the hosts but from the resulting scrum Thierry Dusautoir knocked on as he attempted to touch the ball down for a score - the Television Match Official eventually denying him the try.
The Blues' defence frustrated the visitors again soon after with the hosts continuing to prove more than a match physically for their Top 14 rivals from across the Channel. Buoyed by their defensive showing, the home side threatened to find their stride in attack and when Michalak was penalised for playing the ball on the deck, Blair was handed the chance to give his side the lead once more.
However, he was unable to capitalise as he pushed his effort wide of the posts but he made no mistake moments later with a more straightforward chance and it was a lead his side would hold until the break. The match intensified in the second half and Toulouse upped their game to dominate the early exchanges but Michalak pulled a drop goal attempt wide of the posts when it looked easier to level the scores.
The Blues weathered the storm and Blair extended his side's lead with his third penalty just short of the hour mark which sparked changes for Toulouse including the introduction of David Skrela for Michalak.
A smart offload from Nicky Robinson to Jamie Roberts almost put the centre away and the fly-half then hit the woodwork with a drop goal attempt as the Blues grew in confidence. But Toulouse continued to look dangerous and the Blues were forced into killing the ball to snuff out the threat. Skrela pulled his side within three points with the subsequent penalty midway through the half to set up a nerve-wracking finale.
Incisive runs from Maxime Medard and then Yannick Jauzion promised much for Toulouse but the Blues defence was too good, with man of the match Gethin Jenkins often at the centre of the disciplined forward effort.
And that sterling defensive unity held the Toulouse at bay to condemn them to another painful day at the Millennium Stadium following their defeat to Munster in last year's final. Victory for the unbeaten Blues sparked wild celebrations and ensured a return date next month where they will be favourites against their Premiership rivals who they beat in this season's Anglo-Welsh Cup.
Blues boss Dai Young said, "This is a great day for the region - on and off the pitch. We had to be bold and take the game to Toulouse and defend better than we had done all season. Our kicking game and ball retention wasn't great at times, but we are in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup. I am really pleased for the players - they have worked their socks off.
"Against the biggest team in Europe we stood up and were counted, but we are not the finished article."
Munster take on Ospreys and Harlequins entertain Leinster in the remaining two quarter-finals on Sunday.
Heineken Cup Semi-Finals:
Munster v Leinster (May 2, Croke Park, KO 5.30pm)
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton
Wales were just 13 minutes from a famous victory, but the lessons to be learned in defeat are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards
Ahead of England's clash with Samoa, Scrum Sevens takes a wander down memory lane and celebrates seven examples of Pacific Islands magic
England must find a way to improve their game by tiny margins and they will get there, writes Phil Vickery