Leicester Tigers took four points from a 20-13 win over Rugby Calvisano at the Pata Stadium in northern Italy on Saturday afternoon to make it four wins in a row in Pool 5 of the European Challenge Cup.
It was a tough afternoon for the visitors in testing conditions despite claiming the opening try with little over 60 seconds played and had to wait until the final 20 minutes to secure the points.
After snowy and icy conditions in the Lombardy region all week, matchday dawned with bright sunshine and Tigers were given the perfect start when Freddie Steward scored his first senior try for the club after one minute’s play.
But they added only a three-pointer from Tom Hardwick in the remainder of a disjointed half to lead 8-3 at the break.
Tigers also had to withstand spells of pressure in the second half until Andy Forsyth scored immediately after their rivals had lost lock Davide Zanetti to a red card on the hour and Nephi Leatigaga added his first try for the club in the closing five minutes.
They missed out on a try bonus as the hosts claimed the final score of the game, though Tigers did make it four wins from four games as they moved on to 18 points, five clear of second-placed Cardiff Blues.
With Tigers wearing the club’s alternate fluoro-red kit, the game kicked off just as the re-arranged game between Pau and Cardiff Blues – which had been postponed on Friday following heavy rain – reached its conclusion with both teams taking a try bonus in a 34-29 victory for the French. That took Pau on to 10 points, three behind the Blues with two games to play. Tigers are on 18 points.
Hardwick got the game started and Calvisano were pinned back around their own 22 until Steward provided the breakthrough score.
The chance started with a steal at an Italian lineout and Sam Lewis broke the line to set up 19-year-old Steward to score in the right-hand corner, much to the delight of the travelling fans.
Strong work from Tomás Lavanini at the breakdown won a penalty moments later and the big Argentina international was then tackled off the ball as Tigers built play in attack. But, after hooker Charlie Clare steered the driving maul forwards, play spread to the left and the visitors lost possession.
Noel Reid left the field just five minutes elapsed, replaced by Johnny McPhillips in his European debut for the club.
A penalty on 10 minutes gave the hosts a first chance to gain territory but they missed touch with the kick. It did, though, give something for the home crowd to get in behind and they were in good voice when fly-half Paolo Pescetto got them on the scoreboard with a penalty from the left.
After the positive start from Tigers, the game lost its shape with mistakes from both teams on the ball and the regular whistle of French referee Thomas Charabas.
Clare, who had started the game strongly, left the field due to injury approaching the half-hour, with Jimmy Stevens coming into the front row.
Calvisano were soon back on the ball but the long arm of Lavanini scooped lineout ball back Tigers’ way. He was also at the heart of a set-piece move which threatened the Italian line before the chance was lost at a five-metre lineout.
Two carries from Joe Thomas got Tigers going forward, with McPhillips sidestepping his way through the defence and Facundo Gigena taking play almost up the line before Calvisano lost lock Gabriele Venditti to a yellow card as penalties mounted up and Hardwick kicked for goal to make it 8-3 in Tigers’ favour in the final score of the half.
The home crowd started celebrating a score for Vunisa from a close-range ruck at the start of the second half, but the referee had already whistled against the big back row for offside. It was a let-off for the visitors but they were then penalised just as they put their hosts under pressure in their own half.
A smart kick down the left, though, gave them another promising position, made even more so when Tigers lost replacement Bateman to a yellow card within a minute of his appearance on the field after repeat penalties against his team.
Pressure was finally relieved when Calvisano knocked-on at an attacking scrum, but Tigers were unable to build any meaningful possession, though two good lineout drives near halfway did provide some much-needed possession and field position.
Jordan Taufua, who joined Bateman and Will Spencer in returning from injury, got on the field with an hour gone, replacing Sione Kalamafoni.
Tigers were back up to 15 men but Calvisano lost Davide Zanetti to a red card following intervention from the referee’s intervention at an incident on their own 22.
It came at an immediate cost as Lavanini and Bateman carried in attack and Hardwick took play to the left where Thomas put Forsyth in to score.
From the restart, penalties against Tigers had them back on their own line again and, although they stood firm, with Taufua making two important interventions, another whistle allowed Pescetto to kick another three-pointer, making it 6-13 on 67 minutes.
A kick from Hardwick, chased by Thomas, had Calvisano scrambling back to their tryline and they were in further trouble when McPhillips collared fly-half Pescetto behind his own line.
Play restarted, after a lengthy stoppage for medical treatment to an Italian player, with a Tigers set-piece and after three separate charges to the line, it was replacement Leatigaga who made the final push to score. Hardwick added the conversion with less than four minutes left on the clock.
With Tigers seeking another score in the limited time remaining, they missed the chance after a knock-on inside their own half and then lost Lavanini to the sin-bin with the game well into its final minute as they defended a close-range lineout before Calvisano closed the game with a try from Facundo Panceyra-Garrido as they kept ball in close. The conversion kick from Pescetto brought the reward of a losing bonus point.