Leicester Tigers earned a second win in the European Challenge Cup with a hard-earned 28-20 triumph in Bayonne on Saturday evening.
In the first-ever meeting of the clubs in European competition, and seven years since their last victory in France, Tigers led 17-6 at the Stade Jean Dauger after 30 minutes following tries from Tommy Reffell and Dan Kelly.
Outstanding work off the ball not only defended that lead even with two men short but also gained the penalties which allowed Zack Henry to add to the advantage before Kini Murimurivalu claimed his first try for the club and stretch it to 15 points.
Bayonne scored again after a third yellow card, this time for Cyle Brink, as the game entered its closing stages, but the discipline and defence deserved the win.
Following a silence in tribute to Jean-Pierre Lux, the former chairman of the European Cup organisers, the game got underway just after 9.00pm local time in an empty stadium with Henry kicking off on a mild December evening in the south-west of France.
Henry had been recalled to the team after missing the win over Brive, while Ollie Chessum, Cameron Henderson, Dan Kelly and Jack Van Poortvliet all joined a matchday squad in Europe for the first time and James Whitcombe came on to the bench for his senior debut in a team captained for the first time by Jaco Taute.
Tigers kept their rivals pinned in their own 22 for the opening two minutes, carrying and recycling in the forwards until Henry made the call to go for a drop-goal, but he pushed his attempt just wide of the left-hand post.
Bayonne, wearing a green and white kit in the Challenge Cup which required the visitors to change to blue, had an opening just moments later when Maxime Lafage aimed a pinpoint penalty into the right-hand corner. But the referee blew in Tigers’ favour at the lineout as the hosts tried to set up their push for the line.
When the defence was penalised again at the restart, full-back Gatean Germain kicked his side’s opening points with eight minutes gone.
But the Tigers response was immediate, a scrum securing ball and Henry twisting through a tackle to find Reffell who ran in under the posts. The conversion made it 7-3 after 10 minutes.
Bayonne broke back upfield with their offloading attack on the left, until Joe Heyes picked off a loose pass. But when the French won ball back, they opened space on the opposite wing. Tigers scrambled back and then stood up to a tap penalty to force an error and put-in at a scrum five metres in front of the posts.
Jordan Taufua’s persistence at the next breakdown brought a penalty and then a huge collision as Tomas Lavanini made a tackle in midfield knocked ball out of Bayonne hands but also led to the departure of Charlie Clare who was replaced by Jake Kerr.
A second kick from Germain made it 6-7 before Heyes received attention to a cut head and Dan Cole was sent on from the bench, meaning two-thirds of the front row had changed in the space of just a couple of minutes halfway through the opening period.
Reffell and Murimurivula combined at a breakdown following Henry’s high kick and when referee Chris Busby raised his arm in Tigers’ direction, the fly-half scored the penalty.
A big scrum brought another attacking opportunity down the left, where Harry Simmons made 20 metres before being brought down with a high tackle. Turning down a shot at the posts and, after almost taking a lineout drive over the line, Taufua got within a fraction of scoring before Kelly provided the finish, his first for the club. Henry’s conversion from left of the sticks stretched the lead to 17-6.
Lafage kicked another penalty into the right-hand corner at the opposite end and, when the whistle blew again, tempers flared and the referee spoke to both captains. Play restarted with another kick to the corner but this time Reffell and Leatigaga attached themselves to the ball and held up the drive.
Murimurivalu and Ben White combined to eliminate another scoring chance, but Tigers were quickly short-handed with Heyes sin-binned as he blocked Bayonne progress in attack and Nephi Leatigaga was also banished a minute later for bringing own a maul just short of the tryline.
Bayonne ruthlessly exploited the advantage with the clock already up to 40 minutes, keeping play in the corner for set-piece ball to set up scrum-half Hugo Zabalza to wriggle through and score. Germain’s conversion brought it back to 13-17 as the teams headed for the break.
Tigers started the second half still two men short, but not only did determined defence see out that period, they also played a disciplined game in opposition territory to give Henry the opportunity to add two penalties and stretch the lead into double figures before the front rowers returned.
Bayonne still looked dangerous moving ball quickly in attack, but fumbled under pressure next to the posts on 55 minutes, though play remained in the Tigers half of the field until forceful defence pushed their rivals deeper and deeper, creating the chance for a third try, with Murimurivalu chasing Henry’s well-placed kick on the left. The fly-half’s conversion came out off the post with the visitors 28-13 in front.
Chessum, not for the first time, stole valuable lineout ball as Tigers stayed pinned back and they were down on numbers again on 67 minutes when replacement back-rower Cyle Brink was yellow-carded as he clawed at ball on the floor.
Still Bayonne knocked at the door, and finally scored through replacement Andrei Gorin from close range, with the conversion taking the score to 20-28 with 10 minutes left on the clock.
Lafage hit the post with a last-minute kick as the game closed with Tigers in possession on their own line.