Leicester outmuscle Bath for final berth
May 16, 2010
Bath's Lee Mears tackles Leicester's Martin Castrogiovanni during the clash at Welford Road
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Leicester booked a Guinness Premiership Final date with Saracens with a hard-fought 15-6 victory over Bath in their semi-final showdown at Welford Road.
Five penalties from the boot of Leicester fly-half Toby Flood carried the defending champions into their sixth straight season finale after a dominant second half display strangled the life out of Bath's season. Two penalties from centre Olly Barkley saw Bath enter the break all-square but having weathered a first-half storm from their long-standing rivals, Leicester took control of the contest with Flood the beneficiary of a powerful forward effort and clinical lineout performance.
The Tigers' victory sets up a mouth-watering showdown with Sarries following their upset win at Northampton earlier in the day. The Twickenham showpiece on May 29 is also set to have an added edge after Sarries ended Leicester's proud unbeaten home record last weekend. The aftermath of that game also saw Saracens rugby director Brendan Venter charged with conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game after allegedly pushing a female Leicester supporter and making inappropriate comments and gestures to spectators at Welford Road. His disciplinary hearing takes place in London on Tuesday.
Defeat for Bath means they remain without a win at the home of their bitter rivals since November 2003, with their only two defeats in their last 13 Premiership fixtures coming at Welford Road.
Leicester made three changes from the side beaten last time out with Flood back at fly-half. Lock Louis Deacon and number eight Jordan Crane also returned. Bath, meanwhile, preferred Australian Matt Carraro to England squad member Shontayne Hape at centre.
In a breathless opening, an early chip from Bath fly-half Butch James almost put fullback Nick Abendanon into space in the Leicester 22 but Tigers centre Anthony Allen was there to snuff out the danger. But there was no let-up in the pace of the game with both sides carving out opportunities and first Leicester fullback Scott Hamilton and then Bath hooker Lee Mears found space but not sufficient support.
Bath eventually opened the scores when Leicester were penalised for not rolling away at the breakdown which allowed Barkley to put his side ahead. Bath's expansive approach brought more reward with another penalty on the quarter hour that also sparked the game's first flashpoint as tempers boiled over. Referee Chris White restored order as Barkley lined up his second kick at goal but his latest effort sailed wide of the posts.
A big scrum from Bath on the Leicester 22 then had the Tigers on the back foot and winger Matt Banahan powered towards the line only to be felled just short. But their disappointment was short-lived as play came back for a penalty against the hosts that Barkley slotted to double Bath's lead. Leicester gave the ball some air in response and although Hamilton's handling let him down, an offside penalty against Bath allowed Flood to put the home side on the board from straight in front.
Leicester were soon pressing again with Bath penalised for pulling down an ominous-looking driving maul but a superb tackle from scrum-half Michael Claassens following the resulting scrum relieved the pressure and forced the turnover. Leicester reasserted themselves at scrum time as the half drew to a close and a penalty offered Flood the chance to level the game - which he did although it required a trip to the TMO to confirm the score.
Both sides opted to play the territorial game in the early stages of the second half but failed to capitalise with defence coming to the fore at every turn. Frustration led to another clash- this time between rival hookers Mears and George Chuter - but not before a penalty had gone the way of the Tigers. Flood could only pull his kick wide of the posts but he made no mistake a few minutes later when the Leicester pack drew another penalty at scrum time.
Leicester continued to exert control over proceedings and a lineout steal from flanker Tom Croft, one of several poached by the England international, eventually saw Bath penalised once again and Flood gave his side a bit more breathing room with his fourth penalty.
Bath struggled to find the rhythm that has served them so well in recent weeks as Leicester turned the screw and that pressure led to an inevitable penalty at a scrum time on the visitors' 22 that Flood set through the uprights to put Leicester within sight of victory. An early tackle on James offered Bath a glimmer of hope but Barkley failed to find the target with his kick to leave his side a mountain to climb in the last five minutes.
Tempers threatened to boil over once more as the game reached its conclusion and although Bath played until the final whistle they had no answer the relentless Tigers who were not to be denied another Twickenham appearance.
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