Leicester Tigers earned a place in the last eight of the European Challenge Cup with a 48-32 victory over first-time visitors Connacht Rugby at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday evening.
Despite falling behind early on, Tigers seven of the game’s 11 tries to make it into the quarter-final where they meet Newcastle Falcons next weekend.
Connacht provided the opening score after just seven minutes, but Tigers responded with four first-half tries, including a first for the club by Guy Porter, Matias Moroni and Zack Henry, playing at full-back with Johnny McPhillips starting in the 10 shirt.
It took some big defensive sets at the close of the half to keep out enterprising visitors before a penalty on 40 minutes made it 24-11 at the break.
Chasing a quarter-final place in Europe for a 15th time, Tigers had their lead cut to six points in the opening stages of the second half and it was down to two points before Clare added his second try of the evening.
But Connacht, who had begun the season in the Heineken Champions Cup and have enjoyed strong form on the road this season, scored again through skipper Paul Boyle in the closing 10 minutes to set up an intriguing finale.
As the sunshine set on an Easter Saturday evening, Tigers got the game started, kicking towards the Robin Hood Stand End, but kicked straight to touch on the right, bringing play back to a scrum on the centrespot.
The visitors, in all black, immediately showed their ambition with a swift attack off fly-half jack Carty before Tigers forced an error and Tomas Lavinini picked up possession and Zack Henry cleverly took play back into the opposition half.
When Connacht then kicked out on the full from outside their 22, they faced a Tigers scrum but won the penalty as the front rows hit the floor.
Luke Wallace stopped a charge from opposing No8 Paul Boyle but a kick into the corner had the hosts back on their own line, until Jasper Wiese’s carry out allowed Johnny McPhillips to clear.
But Connacht quickly returned with interest and scrum-half Kieran Marmion supported the break on the left to run in and score. Jack Carty was off target with the conversion.
Tigers got forward from the restart, with Charlie Clare and then George Martin making territory and then a lineout in the corner providing the chance for hooker to Clare to score for a second successive game. Henry pushed the kick wide with the scores level at 5-5 on 12 minutes.
A second try followed just a few minutes later, with Matias Moroni and Matt Scott working hard in hitting Connacht ball-carriers and Porter stepping in to claim ball on the floor and run clear to claim his first try for the club. Henry added the conversion from the left touchline to make it 12-5.
Connacht gained a second scrum penalty on halfway which Carty punted down the right touchline. Cameron Henderson, though, read the jump well and got up in front of his opposite number and force the error.
Boyle threatened to run clear as he picked up ball from the back of a ruck on halfway before Henry stepped in to make a tackle, but the whistle followed as Connacht recycled and Carty made it 12-8 with the three-pointer from the tee.
A clever kick over his shoulder from Ben Youngs pushed Connacht into the corner but they had the benefit of a penalty following the lineout and cleared up to halfway.
After Clare was yellow-carded for a late tackle, Connacht had field position in the left-hand corner, but met resistance from 14-man Tigers and, when they spilled ball, Porter picked up and broke clear.
With Moroni on his right, he passed for the Argentina international to dive in for his first score for the club, making it 17-8 on the half-hour.
McPhillips then put Connacht under pressure with a towering kick and, as Harry Potter quickly offloaded, Henry stepped to the line for the fourth try and added the extras for a 24-8 lead.
Porter almost found he space to create another one but his switch inside couldn’t find Moroni in support, and McPhillips had to make a tackle at full stretch to stop Connacht as they tried to broke clear.
Clare returned to the field as Tigers defended a penalty into the corner. Scrum-half Kieran Marmion was caught just short of the line and then Youngs caught Alex Wootton as he tried to wriggle away on the touchline.
Tigers twice met lineout drives with determined defence and then some force in the middle of the pitch. The visitors went for the scrum option at another penalty with the clock on 40 minutes but still could break through. But when the whistle again, referee Adam Jones spoke to skipper Youngs before Carty kicked to make it 24-11 at half-time.
The second period began with both sides kicking for territory and Tigers standing up to Connacht’s ball in hand until giving away a penalty for offside near halfway and, after a gap opened in midfield, Eoghan Masterson picked up to score and the conversion from Carty cut the gap to 24-18.
Will Hurd made his debut as replacement for Joe Heyes in the front row and Harry Wells was added to the second row as Lavanini made way.
Wells quickly got into the game with a lineout steal which gave Youngs ball to push Connacht back towards their own tryline and take the sting out of their phases of play.
With Henry replaced at full-back by Freddie Steward, McPhillips took over a place-kicker and duly put Tigers more than a score in front again with a penalty.
But Connacht wing Wootton quickly added the visitors’ third score of the evening from a clever pass by scrum-half Coalin Blade, and the conversion from Carty pulled the score back to 27-25 at the 60-minute mark.
Carty missed a penalty just moments later and a chance to go in front for the first time.
Tigers looked to make the most of the escape with a break from Youngs and Moroni taking play up to the tryline. After a couple of surges for the line, the referee adjudged that Henderson had been held up and play restarted with a penalty.
Play stayed in the corner and, after a second penalty, Clare took control as the forwards drove for the line and scored his second of the evening. McPhillips added a vital conversion at 34-25 with less than quarter of an hour to play.
No8 Boyle then hauled Connacht back into the game with a charge in for a try to trim that advantage again, but the response was immediate with Wells burrowing his way over at the other end. McPhillips added the kick to make it 41-32 on 75 minutes.
McPhillips then made a 50-metre break through broken field but was held up by desperate defence over the line.
Nic Dolly emerged for his debut at the five-metre scrum and immediately saw Wiese break off the base to charge over for the seventh try of the evening. The kick from McPhillips put Tigers 16 points in front and on the way to a quarter-final.