Rugby-Leicester set up Saracens showdown after battling past Northampton
LEICESTER, England (Reuters) -Leicester will face Saracens in their first English rugby Premiership final in nine years after they survived a severe test from local rivals Northampton to emerge 27-14 winners in a bruising semi-final at Welford Road on Saturday.
Trailing, a man down and up against it early in the second half, Leicester hit back with tries by George Ford and Freddie Steward and Ford then made sure with a drop goal and penalty to take his tally to 22 points.
The win sparked wild scenes among the home fans, who for years lorded it but who have had to suffer thin times in recent seasons.
Leicester are England’s most successful side with 10 league titles but the last of them came in 2013. That was their ninth successive final appearance but they then lost four successive semis and had not made the playoffs since until Saturday.
The final will be between the teams who finished first and second in the regular season - having finished last and second-last two years ago - as head coach Steve Borthwick continues his remarkable rebuilding job.
"What a place, what a club, what a set of people," said Ford, who is leaving to join Sale next season and paid tribute to team mates Ben and Tom Youngs after Tom's wife Tiffany died from cancer this week.
"Some things are bigger than rugby and that was for that family today," he said.
"I've been here eight years in two stints and I've loved every second if it and I don't think you'll come across a more traditional rugby club. I'm going to miss it greatly.
"We've got ourselves into a position to do something special next week. We're going to have to be at our very best but we can't wait for it."
It was 6-6 at halftime after two penalties each for Ford and Dan Biggar but Northampton will wonder how they weren’t away and clear after winger Courtnall Skosan twice dropped the ball with the tryline beckoning while an Alex Mitchell try was ruled out by the TMO for the most marginal of knock-ons by Skosan.
Leicester began the second half down to 14 after a high tackle yellow card for Guy Porter and Northampton took advantage when sharp passing sent fullback Tommy Freeman over for the first try of the match.
Leicester hit back quickly with a great break and score under the posts by Ford, who also landed the conversion to earn a two-point lead.
A penalty each kept the tension high but the game swung Leicester’s way when replacement Northampton prop Oisin Heffernan was harshly sin-binned for a high tackle and the home side drove on and a fizzing Ford pass sent Steward over to make it 21-14.
Ford missed the conversion but the flyhalf made amends with a drop goal that sneaked over the bar and then rubber-stamped the win with a last-minute penalty.
"It's a tough pill to swallow - they were the better team today," said Northampton captain Lewis Ludlam. "We had the chances but we didn’t finish them and they did. At the top end you have to take them."
Earlier on Saturday Saracens beat holders Harlequins 34-17.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)