A Tom Hardwick penalty with the last kick of the game secured a 14-11 victory for Leicester Tigers against the Cardiff Blues in the second round of the European Challenge Cup on Saturday evening.
Tigers made it two wins from two games with a hugely energetic performance from a young team as they secured only a second-ever win at the Arms Park.
After Pau’s big win over Calvisano in France on Friday evening, they moved level with Tigers and the Blues on five points before kick-off in the Welsh capital, but it was Geordan Murphy’s men who sat on top of Pool 5 by the end of the weekend.
Both coaches made a raft of changes to the line-ups following first-round wins, with Tigers bringing in international prop Ellis Genge for his first start of the season and Ben White taking the captaincy as one of 13 academy graduates in the matchday squad.
After going behind to two Jarrod Evans penalties, Jordan Coghlan’s first try for the club got Tigers on the board and, although they quickly conceded a score from Aled Summerhill, they trailed by just three points at 11-8 at half-time.
But Hardwick kicked the scores level on the hour as the Tigers defence made it tricky for the blues to settle in possession and they got their just rewards with the fly-half’s vital kick in the final action of the game.
Hardwick was among three European debutants in the starting XV as he got the game underway on a rainy evening in the capital, but the Blues claimed the first points with a fourth-minute penalty following a deliberate knock-on by Guy Thompson in the midfield.
A Blues team known for their liking for keeping ball in hand, stretched play right and left while using No8 Nick Williams to draw in defenders, but Tigers stood up well in defence while also creating a couple of attacking chances of their own with skipper White at the heart of their efforts.
Andy Forsyth looked sharp on the left wing as he ripped ball in a tackle and booted 70 metres upfield to relieve some pressure and a trademark charge from Genge, with Guy Thompson in support, had Tigers back on the attack, which was only halted when Blues were whistled for hands in a ruck near halfway.
Willis Halaholo, freshly called up by Wales, showed his footwork as Blues countered and, although White stopped his progress, Tigers were penalised at the ruck and Evans added his second three-pointer with 25 minutes gone.
After retaining possession at a scrum, White burst on to a Thompson break and waited for the last defender to commit before passing ball on for Coghlan to run in on the right. Hardwick, though, was well wide the conversion kick at 6-5.
Halaholo, who had been hurt during the Blues’ last attack, left the field as the game restarted and Blues almost capitalised on a Tigers mistake out wide, only to knock-on. But they quickly won turnover ball and claimed a try as Evans spotted a three-man overlap and kicked for Summerhill to dot down unopposed on the left.
Undeterred, White and Coghlan combined again in attack before George Worth cleverly drew a defender close to the right touchline and passed on to Adam Thompstone. When he was brought down just short of the line, the referee brought play back for a penalty after a tackle off the ball on Sam Lewis. Hardwick added the kick to make it 11-8 with just over a minute left on the clock.
Another charge from Genge took Tigers out of the own territory from the restart and, although, the referee awarded a scrum after the ball was wrapped up at a maul with the clock on 40 minutes, Tigers stayed firm in defence to close out the half three points behind their hosts.
Williams was ab absentee when Cradiff emerged for the second half, replaced by James Botham who was among the tryscorers in the win over Calvisano in Round 1.
Tigers showed real energy in defence as the game got back under way, with EW Viljoen and Sam Lewis pushing their rivals back over halfway and then White ripping possession as Blues looked to pick up at the base of a scrum.
His clearing kick ran out of play but Tigers refused to let the Blues out and then won a scrum penalty, but Hardwick dragged it wide from 35 metres.
The aggressive defence of the visitors was too zealous for the liking of French referee Pierre Brousset who called for two offside penalties well inside Blues territory, though from the second one Cardiff missed their lineout jumper and Genge took ball up. When Tigers forced another error, the Blues were whistled and Hardwick kicked the scores level with 60 minutes played.
Tempers flared a few minutes later which ended with the referee watching repeats of a tussle involving Wells. He took no further action after speaking to both captains, but play restarted with a blues penalty from deep in their own half.
The next whistle also went in Cardiff’s favour as Tigers contested a ruck on the touchline and Evans called for the tee as he looked to edge his side back in front. But he pushed it wide with 10 minutes still to play.
Sam Costelow and Cameron Jordan were introduced for their European debuts and it was the Wales Under-20s cap who made a decisive intervention as he tackled Summerhill into touch in the corner as the wing reached to the tryline.
Tigers lost the lineout and had to defend a five-metre scrum with seven minutes showing on the clock, but not only snuffed out the danger but hacked clear, with Harry Simmons taking play all the way back up to the Blues 22.
Tigers then won ball back from the Blues and threatened down the right before Coghlan and Costelow linked up just in front of the posts. Forsyth was closed out in the left-hand corner but play stayed there as the forwards trucked ball up towards the line. They fell just short, giving Blues scrum ball with the clock into the 80th minute.
They retained possession but could not make much progress before Nephi Leatigaga got over ball at a breakdown to win the penalty which Hardwick slotted for a well-deserved victory.