Saints shock Leicester to reach final
Salesi Ma'afu takes part in a training session in Auckland on October 20, 2011 - by Paul Ellis
Trailing 17-6 at half-time and then a man down when tighthead prop Ma'afu was dismissed for punching Tom Youngs, Jim Mallinder's side looked set for another painful defeat against the Tigers, just 12 months after losing to them in the Premiership final.
But George North and then Tom Wood in the closing stages scored for Saints, cancelling out Leicester's tries from Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs as Mallinder's men held on to deny Leicester a 10th successive Premiership final appearance.
Saints' opponents in the final at Twickenham on May 31 will be either Saracens or Harlequins, who meet in the second semi-final on Saturday.
Last season Dylan Hartley's red card sent Northampton crashing to defeat in the final. But this time around the Saints battled for more than 20 minutes with 14 men to produce a last-gasp victory.
Toby Flood opened the scoring with a penalty on 10 minutes, Leicester content to take the three after finding no penetration from several forays into the Saints' 22.
Phil Dowson powered home after Leicester bungled their five-metre line-out, but there was to be no try, referee JP Doyle ruled an early lift by Northampton.
Saints won a second penalty and fly-half Stephen Myler stepped up and bisected the posts without issue to level at 3-3.
Northampton were level for all of a minute. Leicester bullocked through midfield, Flood set Mathew Tait stepping through traffic into the shadow of the posts, and quick ball allowed Flood an easy palm-off for Tuilagi to score.
Flood converted the game's first try to wrestle back the initiative before Myler doubled his and Saints' tally with his second penalty.
One driving line-out later, prop Logovi'i Mulipola rumbled towards the whitewash and Youngs squirmed home as he marked his 100th Premiership appearance in jubilant style.
Flood's conversion and a fine cover tackle from Tait on Tom Collins meant Leicester completed their 10 minutes a man light with a 7-3 advantage.
The visitors took a 17-6 lead into the break, an ominous portent given their recent dominance over the Saints.
Bowden received a yellow card for his dangerous tackle on Collins, with the home support baying for red and Myler slotted the goal to cut Saints' deficit to eight points.
Northampton pressed and pressed, but tighthead prop Ma'afu twice punched Youngs squarely on the jaw in an off-the-ball altercation.
After lengthy deliberation Tigers hooker Youngs was sent to the sin-bin, while Ma'afu was sent off just ahead of the hour-mark.
Leicester's impressive rearguard was eventually punctured when North capped a textbook line-out drive, with Saints finally over the whitewash.
Myler's nerveless conversion cut the deficit to one solitary point.
Replacement Owen Williams landed a penalty to extend the visitors' lead to four in the closing stages.
But Northampton punted a routine penalty to the corner with four minutes to play, pressing for the killer score which came when Leicester's gutsy defence was finally breached as Luther Burrell sent flanker Wood into the left corner.
Myler struck the post with his touchline conversion, to leave Saints needing to survive the final 30 seconds before they could celebrate at last.