Leicester Tigers got off to a winning start in the European Challenge Cup with a 39-17 bonus-point victory over Brive at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Friday evening.
Tries from Tom and Ben Youngs in each half set the platform in a game largely dominated by the kickers, with fly-halves Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and Enzo Herve trading early penalties before the Tigers captain provided the opening try on the way to a 14-6 lead at the break.
The pattern continued after half-time, with replacement George Ford adding more penalties to the Tigers total before fellow England international Ben Youngs ran in the second try with quarter of an hour remaining.
The visitors supplied fresh hope with a try on 70 minutes but late scores from Cyle Brink and then Nemani Nadolo gave Tigers the perfect start.
Brive had triumphed in the only previous meeting of the teams, in the 1997 European Cup Final, and were making their debut at Mattioli Woods Welford Road in its first-ever European fixture played behind closed doors.
Argentina international Matias Moroni made his Tigers debut at centre, with prop Luan de Bruin named on the bench after his arrival from South Africa. Head coach Steve Borthwick also welcomed back wings Nemani Nadolo and Kini Murimurivalu, and recalled Tomas Lavanini in the second row for his first appearance since last season’s semi-final.
Making their first-ever visit to Leicester, Brive included Tigers academy graduate Wesley Douglas in their line-up after making 12 changes to the starting line-up from last week’s win over Agen in the Top14.
Referee Nika Amashukeli from Georgia was coincidentally also in charge at Tigers in the opening round in Europe last season, got the game started on a still but damp and cold December evening.
Just over a minute had been played when Brive were penalised on the floor on their own 10-metre line and fly-half Joaquin Diaz Bonilla provided the opening points of the evening from the tee.
After enjoying possession in the Tigers half, Brive levelled the scores when the whistle went for offside in chasing a Ben White clearing kick and fly-half Enzo Herve added the penalty.
Freddie Steward and then Kini Murimurivalu were equal to towering kicks into Tigers territory, though spilled ball gave the visitors scrum ball in an advanced position and they remained in the Tigers half until another penalty gave Herve the chance to kick his team into a 6-3 lead on 18 minutes.
The whistle continued to interrupt the game’s flow, but Lavanini was able to block a clearing kick as the visitors were forced into an early change when centre Sevenaia Galala left the field.
When Tigers eventually built some phases of play through the forwards, the French defended well until giving away a cheap penalty in chasing a clearing kick from an offside position and Bonilla made it 6-6 with his kick.
A big scrum from Tigers earned a penalty 30 metres out and when they opted for the right-hand corner, it was skipper Youngs who steered the maul forward and then broke down the touchline to score. Bonilla’s kick from the touchline drew into the far post but hit the top of the crossbar and bounced out with his team 11-6 in front.
When prop Joe Heyes made a big tackle on halfway to put Brive under pressure, Tigers quickly had the advantage of a penalty after promising carries from Jasper Wiese and Jordan Taufua, and this time Bonilla kicked the points for a 14-6 lead just short of half-time.
Persistence at the breakdown from Nephi Leatigaga won an early penalty at the restart but Tigers were unable to build on that as ball was lost in midfield and an error at a defensive lineout gave Herve another sight of the posts and his kick cut the gap to five points.
Tryscorer Youngs and Leatigaga made way as Charlie Clare and Genge joined the front row on 48 minutes and Ford soon joined them on the field, quickly feeding Wiese for a powerful run through the middle and the England fly-half added a penalty on 50 minutes to take the lead to 17-9.
Tigers survived a scare when Ford then had a clearing kick charged down in front of his own posts, only to hear the referee’s whistle for a Brive knock-on in the previous phase of play.
But the scrum only led to a Brive penalty and Herve kicked his fourth three-pointer to chip away at the Tigers lead again.
A flare-up following a hit on Ben Youngs at the base of the ruck soon after his appearance for the bench led to words to both captains from the referee and when play restart with a scrum, the whistle went in favour of Tigers but Ford’s kick drifted pas t the right-hand post.
Another scrum brought another penalty and this time Ford made sure as he took the lead to 20-12, though alarm bells rang at the other end when hooker Badri Alkhazashvili latched on to break but then slipped 20 metres out.
Tigers had to work hard for their exit and prop de Bruin appeared for his debut after Ford had taken play up to halfway with his clearing kick, and a second try followed from an incisive break down the right.
Hanro Liebenberg and Morono combined and Youngs arrived to run into the corner and make it 25-12, though Ford was off-target with the conversion attempt.
Just two minutes later, Brive latched on to loose ball in the Tigers half to put Douglas in to score in the right-hand corner against his former club but Herve added the extras as the gap stood at eight points with just under 10 minutes left to play.
A big scrum brought a Tigers penalty which Ford kicked into the left-hand corner and, although the opportunity was missed, an even bigger push on Brive put-in brought another whistle and a referee warning.
But rather than kick, Tigers gave Genge a run at the line, recycled and Cyle Brink forced his way to the line. Ford added the conversion with Tigers 32-17 in front.
And a minute later Nadolo got in on the act, latching on to a Youngs break to slide in on the left and provide the bonus-point score. Ford ended the evening with an immaculate touchline conversion.