And Tigers captain Tom Youngs accepts there is no hiding place as they try to salvage something from a campaign that could end in crushing under-achievement.
Leicester’s 25-23 home defeat against Newcastle means they will finish outside the Premiership’s top four for a first time since 2004 if Wasps beat Northampton on Sunday.
And should Tigers fail to topple Sale Sharks next weekend, then a top six finish will probably prove beyond them, ending an envious record of playing top-flight European Rugby in all 21 seasons English clubs have participated.
🗣️ "It hasn't been perfect but we're working hard, all of the boys are. The effort is there at training every day, I hope they stick by us and next year at Welford Road, we can repay the faith of those who turn out each week to cheer us on."https://t.co/NfJGfXEX97— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) April 28, 2018
“It is very hard to digest at this precise moment,” Youngs said.
“We have lost too many games this year and been on the bread-line of it all. For 13 years, the club has made the play-offs. We have scraped by in recent years, and that has probably caught up with us.
“It is hugely disappointing. I am captain, and the first captain not to succeed for 13 years… so yeah, there we go.
“You can’t write your own destiny. You can try to control it as much as you like, but you can’t, and that’s the end of it. Sport is a cruel thing sometimes.”
Newcastle number eight Ally Hogg’s stoppage-time try, converted by scrum-half Sonatane Takulua, condemned Leicester to a seventh home defeat of the season in all competitions – their worst return at Welford Road for more than 40 years.
It was also the Falcons’ first win on Tigers soil since 1997 as they took a giant stride towards securing play-off status for the first time.
“We have got to go to Sale next week and we have got to win. End of,” Youngs added. “It (Newcastle defeat) is a bitter blow and will live in my Rugby career memory.
“Pride has been driving us on for ages. We can talk about pride and making the top six, but it is just about the group of players and supporters, that we get a win next weekend.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse than not being top four and not making Europe.
“We can be bitterly disappointed, but we can’t lose our heads, lose our focus, or lose our drive forward. We have been resilient all year, but we have just fallen short in the last couple of weeks, which is really hard to take.
“If we lose next weekend, it makes the next three months even longer, going into next season.
“We have slipped up a few too many times at home, and that has ultimately cost us. We will be hurting over the weekend.
“Leicester is a place where you can’t get away from Rugby sometimes. You go down the supermarket and someone wants to tell you you’re rubbish. That’s fine – they are entitled to that opinion.
“Leicester calls itself a family, so we are all in this together, and we win, lose, draw together. It is tough to take when you get to wear the shirt, which I love dearly, and you come up short. It is heartbreaking.”
John Muldoon’s 15-year career with Connacht ended in fitting fashion with a stunning 47-10 derby win over Leinster amid emotional scenes at the Sportsground.
The popular captain, who is retiring after a record 327 appearances with his native Connacht, enjoyed one final PRO14 victory – even kicking a late conversion – before his summer move to Bristol as their new defence coach.
Leinster fielded a shadow side in Galway, making 15 changes to their Champions Cup semi-final line-up, and trailed 21-3 at half-time through home tries by Niyi Adeolokun, Tiernan O’Halloran and Kieran Marmion.
The sight of man-of-the-match Shane Delahunt setting up Adeolokun’s second try must have had Connacht supporters wondering why Kieran Keane’s men failed to regularly reach these heights during the season.
Leinster were already assured of top spot in Conference B and a home semi-final thanks to a vastly superior scoring difference compared to Scarlets.
Elsewhere, Ulster’s play-off hopes were dashed as they blew a 10-point half-time lead and a last-minute scoring opportunity in a 24-24 draw against Munster at Thomond Park.
The northern province required a bonus-point win to potentially pip Edinburgh to third place in Conference B, but Munster lock Gerbrandt Grobler stole an 80th-minute lineout, five metres out from his own line, to knock the visitors out of title contention.
Duncan Williams and Stuart McCloskey swapped early tries in this lively inter-provincial tie, Brian Scott following up with a second Munster score before Rory Best touched down twice from mauls while Robin Copeland was in the sin-bin.
The Ireland captain’s brace opened up a 24-14 interval lead for Ulster, yet Munster, who were already assured of a home semi-final qualifier next Saturday, held the edge in the second period with Copeland touching down and JJ Hanrahan landing a levelling 68th-minute penalty.
Reigning champions Exeter made sure they would finish top in the regular-season English Premiership table on Saturday as London Irish‘s long-awaited relegation was confirmed without the Exiles taking the field.
But the English title is decided by play-offs, the top four contesting two play-off semi-finals with the winners going forward to a Twickenham final for the right to be crowned Premiership champions.
This was the first time that southwest side Exeter had finished top of the Premiership standings, but forwards coach Rob Hunter was quick to put the achievement in context.
“It’s really nice to finish top but we don’t get anything for it and it’s only good for a week as it will be back to the drawing board ahead of the play-offs,” he said.
Exeter’s tries came from Nic White, Jack Yeandle, Greg Holmes and Lachie Turner with Joe Simmonds converting the first three tries and a penalty.
Exeter Chiefs finish top of England's regular season pile for the first time, having already won the Anglo-Welsh Cup and with the A league final next up on Monday. They remain one of the most remarkable stories anywhere in British sport. https://t.co/OwQENufTfX— robert kitson (@robkitson) April 28, 2018
Elsewhere Worcester boss Alan Solomons was left bemoaning his side’s maddening inconsistency after they swept aside Harlequins 44-13 to maintain top-flight Rugby next season.
The four tries the Midlands club scored in the first half alone were enough to secure the bonus point that sent London Irish, long at the bottom of the table, into the second-tier Championship.
Worcester ran in seven tries in total, centre Jackson Willison grabbing two while wing Bryce Heem, lock Darren Barry, England centre Ben Te’o, scrum-half Francois Hougaard and replacement Jamie Shillcock also crossed Quins’ line.
Yet it said something about Worcester’s season that even with this thumping win they remained 11th in a 12-team Premiership where only the bottom club at the end of the season gets relegated.
Confirmation of @FalconsRugby spot in the semi-finals 💪 after wins for @ExeterChiefs, @bathrugby and @WorcsWarriors this afternoon.— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) April 28, 2018
Here's how the #AvivaPrem #LeagueTable looks with two more games to go in Round 2⃣1⃣ tomorrow 👍 pic.twitter.com/DPu2SCRx2o
“I am overjoyed that we have sealed our place next year in the Premiership,” said veteran South African coach Solomons.
“What I found is just the inconsistency of the team,” he added. “Throughout the time I have been here since mid-October, we have beaten Exeter away, we’ve beaten Gloucester, beaten Leicester away, we got four tries against Sarries and I think we have played some super games.
“But what we haven’t done is be consistent enough…That is something we need to address next season and it will be addressed next season.”
Solomons praised the contribution of former Ireland lock Donncha O’Callaghan, who marked his final match before retirement by captaining Worcester against Quins.
“He is such a nice guy and what a way to finish. He has all his family here.”
Meanwhile, O’Callaghan added: “I have been lucky to be part of successful teams but I have seen another side of Rugby with one down the other end.
“It has been enjoyable and I’ve made some incredible friends.”
Saturday’s other Premiership match saw Bath overpower west country rivals Gloucester 43-20.
The win kept Bath in the hunt for European Champions Cup qualification, although they still need other results to go their way.
“It just showed when the mindset is right what a difference it can make,” said Bath coach Todd Blackadder.