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.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT
Four more pool points this afternoon mean Geordan Murphy's men are certainly into the knockout stages of European competition with a round to go, but a trip to Pau in Round 6 - and results elsewhere - will determine if it's a home tie.
Join us on Matchday Live next Saturday, January 18 (1.00pm UK time) to see how Tigers get on. And, if you're travelling to France, we'll see you there!
FULL TIME | 30-20
...but a forward pass brings the game to a close. Tigers come from behind to secure a Challenge Cup quarter-final with victory over Cardiff Blues.
BALL STILL IN PLAY
Cardiff attempt to run the ball out of their 22...
ARM UP ON THE LEICESTER SIDE
Big cheer from the Tigers Family as their men win a kickable penalty, but decide to go to the corner.
Ford is a little too greedy with his kick, though, and it's just the wrong side of the corner flag. The match - with the clock now into the red - will close with another scrum.
SIMMONS JOINS THE ACTION
...as he is replaced by Harry Simmons for his first appearance after recovering from injury. He goes to the wing, and Ben White stays at scrum-half.
OLOWOFELA HITS AGAIN
Another big hit from Olowofela in defence keeps Cardiff on the back foot, but that'll be the Tigers Academy graduate's final play in this game...
TO ME, TO YOU
Tigers look for the bonus-point score as they win another lineout in the 22, and Polota-Nau and Genge engage in a nice one-two at the front with the Cardiff pack distracted.
Leatigaga needs some treatment, so his replacement of Joe Heyes in the front row is reversed.
DROP GOAL NUMBER TWO!
You wait for one drop goal, and two come along at once.
This time, Ford puts one over from close to halfway to extend his side's lead with less than 10 minutes remaining.
BALL RIPPED IN CONTACT
The visitors stuff-up the restart, but come away with the ball from the set piece ... until it's ripped away by Polota-Nau. The big front-rower gets Tigers back on to the front foot.
PENALTY TO CARDIFF
Meanwhile, Cardiff win a shot at goal ... and it's through. They're back within seven.
Rory Hughes gets a polite cheer from the home crowd as his debut comes to a close, replaced by Adam Thompstone.
Fly-half Ford spots a huge swathe of grass in behind the Cardiff line, but the bounce of the ball brings it back inside and it bobbles dead. Not this time.
PAUSE FOR TREATMENT
Cardiff restart the game with a quick restart from the middle, but they've got a player down on the far side - can't quite make out who, from here - and so the clock is stopped while the medics do their work.
TIGERS TRIO CHANGED
Joe Heyes, Jordan Coghlan and Kyle Eastmond are replaced by Nephi Leatigaga, Ifereimi Boladau and Noel Reid, respectively.
Ford senses his side must come away with something from this passage of play, and he drills the ball through the posts for three more poitns.
HEAVY CARRIES UP THE MIDDLE
Ellis Genge is leading the charge with some heavy-duty carries right into the guts of the Cardiff defence - he bounces off one Welshman before Harry Wells tries the same down the right.
TWO MORE CARDIFF CHANGES
Corey Domachowski and Josh Navidi are both off, replaced by Brad Thyer and Will Boyde.
The ball is out (just) but the Blues back row are on to Ben White in a flash, and they win the ball back on the floor.
MORE RESET SCRUMS!
There's nothing like multiple reset scrums to warm you up on a crisp January afternoon, is there?
Clancy is adamant that we'll get the ball in and away form this pushing contest in the right-hand corner. Tigers up to the five-metre line.
22 FOR 23
You've got to feel for Harri Millard. The Blues back had just come on to the pitch, and now he's helped up the tunnel, holding his shoulder.
He's replaced by Tomos Williams.
DECISION: NO TRY!
Actually, we won't go to the TMO - Clancy discusses with his assistant on the near side and we'll restart with a scrum in the corner.
WE GO UPSTAIRS...
Welford Road crackles into life as Olowofela gets through the line once more and Veainu's diagonal run gets over the line.
We'll check with TMO Lee Colgan to see if the full-back has been successful...
ROBINSON FOR DAVIES
Olly Robinson replaces Seb Davies in the Blues abck row.
Ellis Genge joins the fray in place of Greg Bateman.
OUT ON THE FULL
Cardiff compound their defensive error by putting a kick out on the full, and Polota-Nau feeds the Tigers lineout to great effect on halfway.
Ford's conversion stretches Tigers' lead to seven points.
TIGERS POUNCE FOR NUMBER THREE
Tigers work the overlap and Olowofela breaks through and feeds White to score try number three.
Both sides opt for the box kick once more...
Dillon Lewis and Filo Paulo are both off, replaced by Dmitri Arhip and James Ratti.
NOTHING BETWEEN THEM...
Cardiff win a technical penalty, and Tovey's successful shot at goal brings the scores to 17 points apiece.
Morgan, after coming oh-so-close to his side's third try, is helped from the field as he is replaced by Harri Millard.
TWO TIGERS CHANGES
Tom Youngs and Sam Lewis are applauded by the crowd as they are replaced by Tatafu Polota-Nau and the returning-from-injury Will Spencer.
TMO CHECK | BALL HELD UP
Well, that's a lesson in 'careful what you wish for' if ever we've seen one!
Cardiff strike off the back of the scrum and Matthew Morgan goes over in the corner ... only for replays to show the ball is held up by new wing Rory 'Rozza' Hughes.
ONCE, TWICE, THREE TIMES...
No, Lionel Richie isn't in the ground, but George Clancy has reset this scrum three times. Can we get the ball away, third time lucky?
A tricky kick, but it's no problem for George Ford. Tigers have the lead.
The ball is secured at the lineout, and the backs work round the corner to put Olowofela over in front of the Mattioli Woods Stand. Neat.
Tigers have come out with all guns blazing in this second half, and Ford drills another kick into the croner to give his forwards a go from the lineout.
SECOND HALF GETS GOING
George Ford starts the second half, and Tigers have go-forward ball immediately!
MATCH ACTION | TO THE SKY
Ben White sends the ball skywards before the break at Welford Road.
HALF TIME | 10-14
...and that's the end of a first half that never really got going. Tigers head back into the sheds.
Ford makes sure of his attempt from the tee to draw his side back within four points.
Ford hoists another kick high into the sky, and Veainu gets underneath it to beat his man. He dances past another, but is brought down illegally and Tigers will have a kick at goal.
HEYES HITS IT UP
Tigers' big tighthead puts his head down and carries the ball up into the Cardiff defense, stealing enough time for fly-half Ford to find some space in behind with a neat kick. Lineout inside the opposition 22.
Not the cleanest of connections from Tovey's boot, but it's two points all the same. Cardiff lead 14 points to seven.
CARDIFF CRASH OVER
The Blues pull to the left and then strike on the fold back to the right, Rey Lee-Lo delivering an offload over the corner flag to feed centre partner Ben Thomas to score.
INTO THE CORNER
Cardiff win a penalty on the floor and drill the ball into the corner on the elft-hand side.
Geordan Murphy's men now with the lions' share - obvious joke, we won't make it - of possession in the last couple of minutes, but both teams stay reasonably static over halfway.
Harries is back with us following his HIA, and Millard retakes his place on the bench.
CARDIFF KNOCK ON
Cardiff keep knocking on the door ... but they keep getting batted back. Tommy Reffell leads the way - as promised in the week - with a couple of big tackles, and Tigers win a scrum for a Cardiff knock on.
A couple of defensive lineouts for the men in green, white and red, but scrum-half White looks to the sky to get his team some decent field position.
Cardiff run it back, but ti's Olowofela who puts in a big tackle in front of the Breedon Terrace.
22 DROP OUT
Cardiff string together the phases from the restart, and test the fringes of the Tigers defence - but can't find a way through this time.
Instead, they dab a kick through behind Veainu, who dots down behind his line for a 22 drop out.
ALL SQUARE AT WELFORD ROAD
George Ford splits the uprights and we're all square at Welford Road, seven points apiece.
LEWIS GALLOPS IN!
Third time lucky! Tigers disrupt the Cardiff throw and put Sam Lewis through a hole, and he gallops in for his side's first try of the afternoon.
Harry Wells steals the Blues throw, and Tom Youngs breaks up the field. Flashes of déjà vu as Bateman spills the pass.
HEAD INJURY ASSESSMENT
Cardiff wing Jason Harries is replaced by No23 Harri Millard.
There's a roar from the Welford Road crowd - and not the good kind - as the referee raises his arm on the Cardiff side. Tovey finds good ground with his kick this time.
BATLEY BREAKS THROUGH
Tigers break the line through debutant Joe Batley, who finds half a hole and drags a pair of defenders with him as he offloads to Greg Bateman.
The front-rower can't take it, though, and there's an apologetic smirk as he turns to his team-mates. Nice idea!
We'll restart with a scrum on the edge of the visitors' 22.
We're sure that wasn't int he script, though.
Clancy awards Cardiff a free-kick after an early push from the Tigers front row.
Another good push from the Leicester forwards this time around, and Cardiff ca only make a few metres with their touch finder. Tigers turning the screw in the opposition half, here.
The Tigers pack get a good nudge on at the scrum and it wheels almost a full 180 degrees, but referee George Clancy seems happy enough for scrum-half White to go digging.
He gets the ball out to Jordan Olowofela, but he is brought to ground by three Cardiff defenders. A couple of phases later, and the Blues win a scrum of their own under their sticks.
Tigers force an immediate error from the restart as Cardiff knock on in their own 22, and we'll have an attacking scrum in a really promising position. Boris looks on...
AND THE EXTRAS
Tovey adds the conversion from the tee, and Cardiff lead by seven points to nil.
CARDIFF ON THE SCORESHEET
What's not so nice, though, is the Cardiff move off the back of the throw - at least for Tigers supporters.
The visitors work the ball through the hands off the set piece, and it's Josh Adams who scores in the corner.
Veainu makes a delicious catch - one-handed, above and behind him inside his own 22 - and boots downfield for a lineout beyond halfway. Nice.
Leicester get the ball away from the set piece, but Telusa Veainu is knocked into touch in possession. Sam Lewis, though, steals the lineout throw and Tigers get the ball down the field and into the Cardiff half for the first time in this match.
Cardiff set up a maul from the throw, but it fizzles out and to the ground, as Tigers win the penalty. Ben White will feed into an early scrum.
Tigers under immediate pressure as Blues lock Filo Paulo charges down the return from the restart. Cardiff into the home 22 ... and they win a lineout on the far side.
KICK-OFF FROM WELFORD ROAD
Jason Tovey puts boot to ball and gets Round 5 of the European Challenge Cup underway at Welford Road.
MOMENTS TO GO
The Guard of Honour is formed. The crowd are ready. 'Smoke on the Water' rings out.
Almost time for kick off from Welford Road!
CONFIRMED TEAM NEWS
Tigers welcome Will Spencer and Harry Simmons back from injury and give debuts to Joe Batley and Rory Hughes in this afternoon’s European fixture.
Batley starts in the second row after three games with the Development XV in the Premiership Shield, with Scotland international Hughes called up on the wing. Second-rower Spencer and scrum-half Simmons are both included among the replacements.
Sam Lewis – following his impressive performance in the Round 2 win over Cardiff – starts in the back row, while George Worth shifts to outside centre.
Cardiff make eight changes to the line-up following last week’s game against the Scarlets, and include Rugby World Cup top try scorer Josh Adams. In a late change, Hallam Amos drops out with injury, so Ben Thomas steps up from the bench to wear 13.
See the full match line-ups by clicking here, or scrolling down on this page.
COACH CAM | GEORDIE PREVIEWS CUP CLASH
We caught up with the head coach just before the turnstiles opened to see what he expects from Round 5 of the European Challenge Cup.
LTTV | ‘BABY RHINO’ INTERVIEWS BATLEY
On-loan lock Joe Batley was given an LTTV grilling with a difference at Saturday’s team run ahead of his senior debut in green, white and red.
The 23-year-old sat down with former Hartpury College team-mate Ellis Genge to discuss his time in Leicester so far, and the challenge posed by a strong Blues side this afternoon.
Batley also told his good friend and now Tigers team-mate that there will be plenty of familiar faces in the Welford Road stands for his first appearance.
“I’ve got my whole family [here], it’s nice,” he said. “It’ll be nice for them to come up and watch me.”
You can watch the full interview on LTTV, right here.
REFFELL LEADS THE WAY IN WELSH CHALLENGE
Tigers back-rower Tommy Reffell says his side can draw on the experience of November's gritty win in Cardiff for this afternoon’s return fixture.
The Wales Under-20s star missed the 14-11 win at the Arms Park in November through injury, but wears the No7 shirt in Round 5.
“The boys put in one hell of a defensive shift when we went down there,” he said.
“I know from playing on that pitch myself, it’s a really fast track and the boys did well to stop them win limited points.
“We want to keep improving ourselves over the next two games, and we’ll be able to kick on from that.
“The coaches have shown a lot of faith in me this season, and I want to repay them by playing well on the pitch.”
Read the back-rower’s full preview of this afternoon’s match here.
MATCH PREVIEW | POOL 5, ROUND 5
With a European quarter final at stake, the top two contenders in Pool 5 of the Challenge Cup go head to head at Welford Road this afternoon.
After four wins from four games so far, Tigers have 18 points – five ahead of the Blues who host Calvisano in the final round next weekend. French club Pau jumped up to 15 points overnight following a big win in Italy, leaving everything still to play for in the race for quarter-final qualification.
Tigers head coach Geordan Murphy said: “We appreciate we’ve got to get better. We’re making steps in the right direction but there are also areas to improve on.
“We’ve won four out of four but nothing is decided in the pool yet.”
Read our full match preview here, or scroll down on this page.
WELCOME TO MATCHDAY LIVE!
We’re LIVE from Welford Road for Leicester Tigers’ latest challenge in European competition against Cardiff Blues, with kick-off to come at 3.15pm.
Follow all the action as it happens with our Matchday Live coverage, right here on the Tigers App and LeicesterTigers.com.