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Tigers claim shoot-out glory
Crane the hero after extra-time fails to separate Cardiff and Leicester
Leicester Tigers reached the Heineken Cup final with a sudden-death penalty shoot-out victory over Cardiff Blues at the Millennium Stadium.
The Tigers looked to be cruising after tries either side of half-time from Scott Hamilton and Geordan Murphy, supplemented by four Julien Dupuy penalties, helped them open a 26-12 lead entering the final quarter.
But the match was turned on its head in the final stages when Leicester lost Craig Newby and Geordan Murphy to the sin-bin in quick succession for cynical infringements as Cardiff pressed for the line.
The Blues took advantage of their numerical supremacy with tries from Jamie Roberts and Tom James - both converted from the touchline by Ben Blair - to level at 26-26 and force extra-time.
The additional 20 minutes failed to produce another point, leaving the match to be decided in a penalty shoot-out, with the players lining up their shots from in front of the posts on the 22-metre line.
Johne Murphy, Leicester's fourth kicker, was the first to miss but Tom James, Cardiff's fifth man up, was also off-target when a successful attempt would have won it for the Blues.
After four more successful kicks in sudden death, Cardiff's Martyn Williams scuffed his wide and Jordan Crane's straight and true effort sent Leicester into the final, where they will face Leinster at Murrayfield on May 23.
Leicester had dominated the opening 20 minutes but found themselves behind after Dupuy, preferred to England international Harry Ellis in the starting XV, missed three kickable penalties.
Cardiff suffered a major blow on 10 minutes when skipper Paul Tito was forced off with a rib injury and replaced by Deiniol Jones, although they initially made light of Tito's absence as Blair landed a straightforward penalty to open the scoring.
Leicester responded with the game's opening try in the 22nd minute, expertly finished by Hamilton from Flood's superbly-timed off-load.
Flood sucked in two tacklers before releasing the ball out of the back of his hand to winger Hamilton, who left Blues full-back Blair - his fellow ex-All Black - on the floor on his way under the posts.
Dupuy finally found his radar to add the conversion and a penalty shortly afterwards to give Leicester a 10-3 lead.
Cardiff, however, managed to edge back in front against the run of play with three penalties - two long-range efforts from Halfpenny sandwiching a Blair chip shot.
Halfpenny, the 20-year-old winger who is part of the Lions squad to tour South Africa, landed the first just inside the opposition half on 28 minutes and added another right on half-way after Leicester were penalised for back-chat to referee Alain Rolland.
Dupuy's second penalty three minutes before the break at least gave the Tigers a 13-12 half-time lead, although it was scant reward having enjoyed 60 percent possesion during the opening 40 minutes.
Leicester continued from where they left off at the start of the second half and were soon rewarded with their second try. Flood shaped to send the ball left but instead switched it back for Geordan Murphy, entering the line at pace, to go in under the sticks from close range. Dupuy's conversion extended the Tigers' advantage to 20-12.
And the Guinness Premiership side eased 26-12 clear with two further Dupuy penalties on 54 and 59 minutes, both the result of ruck infringements from the overworked Cardiff pack.
Flood hobbled off in the 60th minute after catching his studs in the turf and appearing to injure his Achilles. Sam Vesty moved to number 10 and Aaron Mauger came off the bench to bolster the centres.
Cardiff, realising the clock was starting to run out on their European dream, immediately turned up the pressure with an extended foray into opposition territory.
Twice they spurned straightforward penalties to push for the try-line and, although they failed to cross the whitewash, Leicester's desperate defending resulted in flanker Newby being shown the yellow card.
The blindside was punished for diving into a ruck off his feet right in front of the posts to prevent Cardiff quickly recycling the ball.
And he was joined in the sin-bin by team-mate Murphy in the 67th-minute to leave the Tigers down to 13 men for four minutes and facing an extended period with a numerical disadvantage.
Leicester's defence initially stood firm under fierce pressure until being hit by an amazing late double strike.
Roberts scored his first Heineken Cup try in the 73rd minute, cruising over in the left corner after correctly opting to go alone despite having support on the outside.
Blair stood up to the pressure to add the additional two points and, crucially, bring his side back within a converted try of forcing extra-time.
And immediately from collecting the restart the Blues scored again. This time Roberts turned provider, starting the move from inside his own 22 before releasing winger James to storm all the way down the left touchline.
Blair faced the exact same challenge with the conversion as two minutes earlier, only this time the prize on offer was extra-time for his side. The New Zealander looked confident and duly planted his kick straight through the middle of the posts.
The 20 minutes of extra-time passed off quietly, although a surprise long-range drop-goal attempt from Leicester's Johne Murphy had the length, but was just wide of the uprights.
In the dying moments, Tom Croft appeared to be bursting for the line before being hauled down by Cardiff's scrambling defence and, when the ball went dead from the next phase, the stage was set for the first penalty shoot-out in Heineken Cup history.
The format used is similar to football with each side initially having five kicks from in front of the posts on the 22-metre line and, if neccesary, sudden death follows.
The first three kickers from both sides - Blair, Nicky Robinson and Halfpenny for Cardiff and Leicester's Dupuy, Vesty and Geordan Murphy - were all successful.
Ceri Sweeney put the Blues 4-3 up before Johne Murphy became the first man to blink, pulling his kick wide left to give Cardiff's fifth kicker James the opportunity to clinch the victory.
But the Welsh winger failed with his badly scuffed kick and Leicester's fifth kicker Hamilton was on-target to force sudden death.
Tom Shanklin, Aaron Mauger, Richie Rees and Newby each sent over their kicks in turn before Cardiff flanker Williams made a horrible connection to miss.
And Crane stepped up to finally settle matters in favour of Leicester, his sweetly-struck effort sailing through the posts to bring a close to a thrilling afternoon.
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|Sunday 25th January|
|European Rugby Champions Cup|
|Munster 65 - 10 Sale Sharks|
|Clermont Auvergne 18 - 6 Saracens|
|Bath 20 - 15 Glasgow|
|Montpellier 27 - 26 Toulouse|
|Saturday 24th January|
|Scarlets 3 - 26 Toulon|
|Ulster 26 - 7 Leicester|
|Northampton 8 - 32 Racing Metro 92|
|Benetton Treviso 23 - 20 Ospreys|
|Castres 19 - 47 Harlequins|
|Wasps 20 - 20 Leinster|
|Sunday 18th January|
|Ospreys 9 - 20 Northampton|
|Racing Metro 92 53 - 7 Benetton Treviso|
|Toulouse 18 - 35 Bath|
|Glasgow 21 - 10 Montpellier|
|Saturday 17th January|
|Harlequins 3 - 23 Wasps|
|Sale Sharks 13 - 22 Clermont Auvergne|
|Leinster 50 - 8 Castres|
|Toulon 60 - 22 Ulster|
|Saracens 33 - 10 Munster|
|Friday 16th January|
|Leicester 40 - 23 Scarlets|
Read the thoughts and opinions of Phil Edwards with skysports.com