Leicester Tigers secured a place in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup with a 30-20 victory over Cardiff Blues at Welford Road on Sunday.
The four points took Tigers clear in top spot in Pool 5 as they made it five wins in a row to stay ahead of Pau and the Blues with one game remaining in the qualifying stages.
The Blues got off to a flying start with an early try but Tigers came back with tries from Sam Lewis, Jordan Olowofela and then Ben White, with George Ford landing two drop goals to provide extra breathing space on the scoreboard.
Tigers gave debuts to Joe Batley and Rory Hughes, while Greg Bateman made his first starting appearance since November, and Will Spencer and Harry Simmons returned to the squad after injury.
Blues head coach John Mulvihill made eight changes to the line-up from the previous week and made a late change when Hallam Amos dropped out, with Josh Adams reverting to the wing and Ben Thomas coming in at centre.
And it was Adams who made an instant mark with the opening try as a swift attack down their left gave the Wales international the opening. Jason Tovey added the conversion for a seven-point lead with just eight minutes played.
A spill from the restart, however, gave Tigers a platform at a scrum inside the opposition 22 until wrapped up on the ball in front of the posts.
George Worth charged down a Blues clearing kick to give himself a free run to the line, but referee George Clancy was already playing advantage for a Tigers knock-on and play came back for another scrum.
Batley made his first intervention as Tigers made ground in midfield and had Greg Bateman in support but the ball didn’t go to hand and the chance was gone.
The scores were level on 20 minutes after Lewis latched on to a break from Ford to dive in near the posts and the Tigers fly-half added the conversion.
Josh Navidi felt the force of the Tigers defence with a big hit from Olowofela and then driven backwards by Tom Youngs, though the Blues retained control of the ball for multiple phases just inside the home side’s half of the field.
Olowofela then ripped ball in contact but knocked-on as he tried to gather in a scrappy period of play punctuated by errors.
The Blues, though, took the lead for a second time just past the half-hour when an attack on the right gave them numbers out wide and Rey Lee-Lo offloaded for centre partner Ben Thomas to score. Tovey added the touchline conversion to make it 7-14 and a fair reflection of their share of possession thus far.
Telusa Veainu made a superb catch of a high ball as he chased a deep kick from Ford and spun out of contact to attack the Blues 22. When the visitors were penalised at the breakdown, Ford added three points from in front of the posts with less than a minute remaining in the half and the teams headed in with Cardiff 14-10 in front.
Straight from kick-off in the second half Olowofela reclaimed ball as Navidi let it slip from his grasp but the defence stood firm.
A penalty on halfway, though, gave Ford a chance to kick down the right and it was Olowofela who scored in the opposite corner after White had wrestled back possession from the set-piece then Ford and Eastmond combined in midfield to open the space out wide.
Ford’s touchline conversion increased the advantage from one to three points at 17-14.
Dropped ball at the restart gave Blues an attacking scrum and they quickly made the most of the field position, creating space for full-back Matthew Morgan to attack the tryline. He slid in and the visitors thought they had a third try, only for replays to show he had twisted on to his back and not got the ball down.
As he was held up, play restarted with an attacking scrum as Tigers sent on Tatafu Polota-Nau and Will Spencer. Although the ball squirted out in Tigers’ favour, the referee decided they had infringed in the front row and gave a penalty which Tovey kicked to level the scores again.
The to-and-fro contest continued in the same vein as Tigers broke in midfield and Olowofela put White in to score. Ford’s conversion from in front of the posts made it 24-17 on 55 minutes.
A thrilling attack from inside their own 22, with Veainu feeding Olowofela on the left and then taking the return pass after the young wing had beaten a handful of defenders in midfield, almost brought a try for the Tongan full-back, only to be held up in the right-hand corner.
Harry Wells and Will Spencer then carried forcefully in attack as the Blues were pinned back, but Tigers just couldn’t find the scoring opening and Ford dropped back to nudge a drop goal over and put the lead into double figures at 27-17 on 64 minutes.
Hughes picked his way through broken field near halfway as Tigers gained territory again, but when Ford’s chip over the defence ran dead, play came back almost to halfway. And when Blues gained some more metres in attack, Tiger were whistled offside and Tovey added a penalty to bring them back to within one score.
The restart kick from Ford pushed the Blues back again as they allowed it to bounce into touch just 10 metres out from the tryline and when the hosts won back ball, Ford took on another drop goal attempt, this time from 40 metres, and saw it sail through the posts with the final scoring chance of the day.