Leicester Tigers 33-24 Ulster: Hosts come from 11 points down to win thrilling European Challenge Cup semi-final
Man-of-the-match George Ford kicked 18 points, while Jasper Wiese, Ellis Genge and Guy Porter scored tries as Leicester Tigers booked a first European final since 2009 after an exhilaratingly topsy-turvy Challenge Cup comeback win over Ulster at Welford Road.
By Michael Cantillon at Welford Road
Last Updated: 12/05/21 10:54am
Leicester Tigers recovered from 11 points down to book a place in the 2021 Challenge Cup final, after a thrilling 33-24 victory over Ulster at Welford Road.
Largely outplayed by the Irish province in the first half, the Tigers lost skipper Tom Youngs to a yellow card and conceded tries to Ulster second row Iain Henderson and out-half Billy Burns, as the visitors played with great pace and confidence.
The second half was a complete reversal, however, as the Tigers dominated proceedings to score tries through No 8 Jasper Wiese and loosehead Ellis Genge, in addition to George Ford penalty and drop goal efforts, moving nine points clear.
An outstanding Nick Timoney effort in the final quarter brought Ulster back to within two points, but Guy Porter struck the killer blow in the contest with six minutes remaining to send Leicester to a first European final since 2009 against either Bath or Montpellier, who face each other on Saturday.
Ulster began the contest full of control and physicality, governing the ball for the opening 13 phases of the match before a Rob Baloucoune knock-on within the Tigers' 22 ended their attack.
For all the visitors' promising build-up, however, it was the Tigers who forced the first chance for points, as mammoth wing Nemani Nadolo jackalled superbly at a breakdown to win a penalty from distance. Ford attempted a shot at goal, but hooked wide.
Within a minute the Leicester out-half would not make the same mistake off the tee, though, as after full-back Freddie Steward had sensationally claimed a Garryowen, Ulster were caught offside and Ford drilled over for 3-0 on seven minutes.
Ulster responded immediately as the Tigers were caught offside themselves within their own half shortly after the restart, and scrum-half John Cooney bisected the uprights to level things.
Following two soft scores within the first few exchanges, Ulster then looked in for a try of real quality, as ferocious attacking at great tempo paved the way for Baloucoune to dive over out wide, but the effort was ruled out in a TMO referral for an earlier Timoney knock-on.
The reprieve was brief for the Tigers, as, after Ulster kicked a penalty to the corner, Leicester skipper Youngs was sin-binned for repeated infringements, before Ulster tapped and went from five metres through Rob Herring and scored via captain Henderson - the latter doing well to remain on his feet and wrestle his way over.
Cooney converted for 10-3, but a lineout infringement in the air by Ulster lock Alan O'Connor on Hanro Liebenberg handed Leicester a short-term route back into the game, as Ford landed a magnificent 50-metre penalty on the angle to reduce the deficit while still down to 14 players.
Ulster were playing with great verve and assurance, though, and within minutes were deep within the Tigers' 22 again as young wing Ethan McIlroy skipped forward. Nine phases of impactful carrying opened the door for the visitors to then ruthlessly exploit their numerical advantage out wide, as out-half Burns slid in untouched.
Cooney converted exceptionally, and by the time Youngs returned from his costly yellow card, the home side were 17-6 behind.
On the half-hour mark, Leicester created a huge opening to get back into things, as Steward executed an exquisite kick after Nadolo had carried hard, forcing Ulster full-back Jacob Stockdale to carry the ball back over his own try-line.
From the resultant five-metre attacking scrum, Leicester forced a dominant penalty but, when deciding to go again at the set-piece, they conceded a decision against the head in an immense defensive moment for Ulster.
The score remained 17-6 at the break, but early into the second period Ulster lost Cooney to a head injury after an accidental collision with Nadolo knocked him out cold.
Moments later, Leicester were over for their opening try of the half as, after Steward had been stopped just short in one corner, back-row Wiese barged over with Cyle Brink on his shoulder on the opposite side of the posts after 44 minutes.
Ford converted to make the semi-final a four-point game, before a nervous-looking Ulster kicked out on the full through Stockdale, inviting further pressure.
A penalty for offside handed Ford a simple effort off the tee, and the England No 10 duly obliged to reduce the arrears further and leave things 17-16 to the away side.
When Nadolo jackalled to win his second breakdown penalty of the match, the Tigers were soon back in prime rugby real estate, from where they scored their second try as Genge dived over out wide courtesy of a gorgeous flat Ford pass.
When Ford expertly converted from the just off the touchline, the Tigers had turned an 11-point deficit into a six-point lead just 15 minutes into the second period.
After 58 minutes, the by-now irresistible Tigers moved further ahead when Ford slotted over a drop goal as Ulster's second-half malaise continued.
When Ulster did finally get going past the hour mark with their first foray forward, Tigers centre Matias Moroni was on hand to force a priceless breakdown penalty deep within his own 22.
Into the final 12 minutes, a cheap penalty against Tigers replacement Tomas Lavanini for obstruction handed Ulster territory, preceding No 8 Timoney's stunning solo try, as he broke and sprinted in from 40 metres. Michael Lowry then converted wonderfully to set-up a tantalising last 10.
A monumental error from replacement Will Addison was to prove fatal, however, as the full-back spilled a high ball under no pressure back into his own 22, before kicking out on the full.
From the consequent lineout, Porter would score in the corner after the Tigers had stretched the Ulster defence to breaking point - Ford again the architect - and with that the game was done and dusted.