If the unravelling of Ulster’s PRO14 hopes had felt like the air slowly being let from the balloon, the ending of their Challenge Cup ambitions were burst spectacularly over the course of 40 minutes in Welford Road.
eading by nine-points at half-time and seemingly in control given a performance that was superior to Leicester’s in almost every facet of the contest, there was no indication of what was to come in a second-half that at one stage featured 20 unanswered points.
Searching for their first piece of silverware since the 2006 Celtic League, the thoughts of supporters will have been drifting towards whether it would be Bath or Montpelier in a Twickenham final but there was to be a rude awakening.
Losing John Cooney to injury hardly helped matters but where Ulster had won every collision in the first half, dominating possession and territory thanks to lightning quick ball, roles were reversed dramatically in the second-half.
While George Ford orchestrated the thrilling comeback in a brilliant second 40, in the first-half Leicester’s kicking game appeared their only attacking weapon and it was off penalties brought about by such pressure that they would earn two early penalties.
While Ford would be wayward from the tee at first the kick would act as a sighter for the English fly-half who made no mistake with a second effort three minutes later.
Ulster responded in kind off their next possession and from there it was one way traffic.
If it was somewhat against usual practice to see Ulster opt for the posts, they would attempt to get their maul going soon after and, while the move off the lineout would yield an opening for Robert Baloucoune to cross the whitewash, the score was chalked off for a knock-on in the build-up.
Having been playing with advantage, the visitors would get another crack with another penalty bringing a yellow card for Tom Youngs.
The offsides kept coming and the pressure eventually told, Henderson barging over to finish emphatically off the pick and go.
Leicester would stay in touching distance with 14 men, even if the Tigers appeared somewhat fortunate to get a line-out penalty off what appeared to be a off line throw from makeshift hooker Ellis Genge but Ulster would prove too clinical.
Winning the collisions and moving the ball at pace, Leicester were drawn far too narrow in defence and Billy Burns would have the benefit of two men outside him when he darted over for Ulster’s second try from as many visits to the opposition ‘22’.
The performance from Dan McFarland’s men was unrecognisable from what was served up in the Rainbow Cup opener but if there was one area where Tigers still sensed they could get a foothold in the game it was the scrum.
Having earned a penalty at the set-piece five metres out, it was no surprise to see the hosts go again but, when Gauzere whistled them for an offence on their own put in as half-time neared, it felt a decisive moment in the game.
It would still take a Stuart McCloskey jackal turnover to ensure Ulster would maintain their 11-point lead to the turn but in truth there was little reason to think anything but that they were 40 minutes from the final.
Steve Borthwick left little doubt as to how he viewed the first-half from his side, making three changes at the break, with skipper Youngs, Dan Cole and George Martin all hauled ashore.
Tigers would start the second-half in a better fashion but after a rare spell of possession a forward pass would only add to their frustrations.
The loss of John Cooney, a casualty of a heavy collision with Nadolo, was certainly a set-back for Ulster and swiftly followed by another as Jasper Weise grabbed the Tigers’ first try of the game after yet more good work from the impressive Freddie Steward.
Momentum had certainly shifted and a transformed Leicester would cut the lead further with another Ford penalty. After only nine minutes of the second-half, Ulster had lost their attacking talisman to injury and had their advantage cut from 11-points to just one.
By the 52nd minute, matters were even worse. Ellis Genge the beneficiary of yet another break from Steward and pacey work George Ford and the recently introduced Ben Youngs.
A Ford drop goal edged the English side further ahead and, while Ulster sought a similar spark from their bench, carries from Will Addison and Sean Reidy counted for nought when Argentine international Matias Moroni did brilliantly to get over the ball and force the turnover.
Having utilised such patience build-up to craft their early scores, it was a first-phase score off a line-out that would haul Ulster back into it, Leicester cheating in on Stuart McCloskey only for the Ulster centre to pop the ball up for Nick Timoney to race beyond the back-field cover.
Under the circumstances, having lost Cooney and replaced Burns, the conversion from Mike Lowry was imperative and he made no mistake to make it a two-point game.
It would not be the start of this game’s second great comeback though, Ulster conceding a line-out when Addison saw the ball bounce off his shoulder into his own ‘22’ before launching the ball out of play on the full.
With penalty advantage, Leicester were set to leave Ulster needing another try regardless but an inspired passage from Ford, first with a pass to Guy Porter to create a score, and then with the touchline conversion, left Ulster down nine and without either the time nor momentum to launch any late charge.
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; G Porter, M Moroni, M Scott, N Nadolo; G Ford, R Wigglesworth; E Genge, T Youngs, D Cole; H Wells, C Green; G Martin, H Liebenberg, J Wiese.
Replacements: C Clare (for T Youngs, 40), C Brink (for G Martin, 40), J Heyes (for Cole, 40), B Youngs (for Wigglesworth, 45), K Murimurivalu (for Nadolo, 61), L de Brun (for Genge, 65), T Lavanini (for Wells, 65).
Ulster Rugby: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIroy; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore, I Henderson, A O’Connor; Mat Rea, J Murphy, N Timoney.
Replacements: S Reidy (for Rea, 37- 40, 55), A Mathewson (for Cooney, 43), W Addison (for Baloucoune, 55), K Treadwell (for O’Connor, 59), A Warwick (for O’Sullivan, 73), T O’Toole (for Moore, 73).
Referee: P Gauzere (France).