Ulster edged an absorbing battle in Welford Road thanks to a domineering display from the World Cup winning scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, who scored all their points, to secure a home Heineken Cup quarter-final in the re-developed Ravenhill.
Heineken Cup quarter-final in the re-developed Ravenhill.
Ravenhill will be finished in April; this Ulster team may not be.
The Springbok was untouchable and, despite falling behind 19-9 early in the second-half, his crucial chargedown launched a revival that thwarted the English giants.
It will the first home quarter-final for an Ulster side who reached the final in 2012 but they will surely have designs on going one better this season.
The sides were level at the break, 9-9, but a ten-point surge from Leicester, featuring a try from ex-Leinster man Niall Morris, seemed to give the home side the upper hand.
Not with Pienaar around as Ulster ground out the deserved win despite their shaky start to both halves.
John Afoa lost his way against Marco Ayerza in the opening scrum engagement and Toulouse-bound Toby Flood banged over the fifth minute penalty to reward the home side’s earliest incisions.
There were a surfeit of early mistakes, betraying the fact that although both sides had secured last eight places, the immense carrot of a home quarter-final highlighted the stakes involved.
Ruan Pienaar threw a wild pass while Ben Youngs kicked straight to touch as the scrum-halves struggled early on; Paddy Jackson threw up a howitzer of a Garryowen but Matt Tait collected despite the onrushing quartet of bloodthirsty Ulster men.
Leicester were earning the marginal decisions and benefiting from receiving both in the scoring zone; Andrew Trimble was done not for rolling away in the tackle and Flood doubled the lead in the 12th minute.
Ulster did get a chance on their next visit, Pienaar kicking a penalty – probably outside his range – to touch and Leicester’s Ed Slater was done for dragging down a coherent maul.
Pienaar didn’t spurn this kick, slotting his 17th minute kick nonchalantly between the posts. Flood then kicked the restart straight into touch.
Ulster couldn’t pounce on the first signs of a wobble from the home side. Instead, they wobbled themselves.
Rory Best’s attacking throw was thieved by Graham Kitchener and, when Craig Gilroy had the ball ripped from him by Matt Smith; Ulster’s inability to hold on to the ball was writ large.
Graham Kitchener found a huge hole in Ulster’s fringe defence and his brave assault on the line died near the corner flag thanks to Jared Payne’s cover tackle.
Alarmingly, Afoa struggled when Ulster won a relieving scrum; Flood kicked the easy three-pointer and, just as in the days of ABC on their jerseys, they had effortlessly compiled a 3-6-9 scoreline.
With Paddy Jackson sending his restart into the delirious home crowd, Ulster had started to bleed as Leicester sensed a growing mental and physical balance shift their way, backed by a stiffish breeze.
Ulster needed a response and they found one via another lineout drive; Dan Cole this time forced to collapse the imposing movement. Pienaar had begun his race to halfway the moment he struck the 29th minute kick; a 6-9 deficit was more than acceptable given the narrative.
To level matters would be more pleasing; they did so a couple of minutes later, Dan Tuohy and Darren Cave scrapping brilliantly at the breakdown.
The kick seemed foreboding as it was on the halfway line; more so when Nigel Owens asked Pienaar to take a few steps backwards into his own half. No matter; the kick sailed between the posts and, at 9-9, now it was Ulster in the ascendancy.
Afoa, enjoying a joyless afternoon, trespassed at a ruck and Flood, after taking a late hit on his troublesome knee from Pienaar moments earlier, clearly struggled with the kick and he stabbed his effort wide.
It was absorbing stuff, a real potboiler.
Ulster had a glimmer of a try-scoring chance before the break but Andrew Trimble drifted into touch; his pass to Jared Payne had already gone awry, however. Nevertheless, it was Ulster who bounded to the sheds for refreshments; Leicester did so with drooping shoulders. Ulster emerged first after tea, too.
Errors allowed Leicester to regain a 48th minute lead however, first Andrew Trimble ceding position by flailing into a ruck from the side while Chris Henry broke away from a strong Ulster scrum, all of which led to Flood regaining his range with his fourth successful kick.
Leicester were looking sturdy but Ulster’s defence seemed sturdier; suddenly a couple of kicks undid them as the home side took an unexpected grip on the contest.
Payne knocked on a Flood Garryowen; then, a few recycles later, Flood’s dink found an ocean of space that was gobbled up by ex-Leinster man Niall Morris.
Flood’s conversion suddenly made it 19-9, a ten-point swing since Ulster supporters had been contemplating a home quarter-final as they queued for half-time pints.
A poor Jackson deserved nothing but Vereniki Goneva’s decision to let it bounce invites 19 phases of relentless Ulster pressure; Leicester were relieved to escape with the sight of Pienaar slotting his fourth penalty; 19-12 as we neared the final quarter.
Flood, remarkably, zoomed from hero to villain when, following another Jackson bomb, he dallied over a clearance kick and Pienaar’s chase was celebrated with the most unlikeliest of touchdowns.
Cometh the hour – the clock struck 60 minutes as the Springbok converted his fifth successive kick for 19-19 – cometh the man. Pienaar’s influence on this team was once again proving inestimable.
A kick to touch on the full demonstrated he was fallible; infallibility was restored with another monster penalty attempt from a metre in his own half that sailed through the posts.
Ten minutes remained and Ulster were looking the fitter and stronger side. All they needed to do was manage the conclusion.
They understandably housed jitters; two poor relieving kicks and a wayward offside allowed Flood to boom a 50-yarder to the corner flag; Ulster defended the maul better than they have done of late, then Flood knocked on when the pill was moved wide.
There was still time for more drama; Luke Marshall thought he had emulated Flood with a kick to the corner but the TMO said otherwise, hauling them back some 70 metres for a defensive scrum.
Ulster thundered into the set-piece, frogmarching the home side backwards. Now Ulster will march all the way to Ravenhill for a quarter-final. And who knows where from there.
Leicester: M Tait (S Hamilton 39); N Morris, M Smith (O Williams 80), A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood (c), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs (R Hawkins 69), D Cole, E Slater, G Kitchener, J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane (S Mafi 20).
Replacements: B Stankovich, F Balmain, L Deacon, , D Mele, ,.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black (T Court 56), R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (c), D Tuohy (I Henderson 65), R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams (R Diack 56)
Referee: N Owens (WRU)