Leicester Tigers were beaten by a single point in the European Challenge Cup Final as Montpellier lifted the trophy with an 18-17 victory at Twickenham on Friday evening.
A crowd of 10,000 – thanks to relaxation of regulations on Covid measures – greeted the teams and thy were still in good voice as the game reached half-time all-square at 10-10 after a Harry Wells try for Tigers and one from wing Vincent Rattez for their rivals.
Forward pressure brought a second Tigers try for Jasper Wiese in the early stages of the second period before the French fought back with a well-worked score for Johan Goosen to lead by a point on the hour mark and it stayed that way to the end as Montpellier took the trophy for a second time in five years.
After a day of rain and strong winds, conditions had improved as Montpellier won the toss and kicked off with the Tigers fans greeting every tackle with an increase in the noise.
But after a lineout set up a strong drive on halfway for Tigers, the first penalty gave Nadolo and Genge a chance to carry in midfield and Ford then forced Montpellier on to their own line as he prodded a kick into the corner.
When their clearing kick made only 10 metres, Montpellier were pinned back and gave away another penalty 10 metres out.
Referee Andrew Brace asked the French captain for more discipline as Ford called for the tee and opened the scoring from 25 metres on eight minutes.
The lead lasted only until the 13th minute as Vincent Rattez placed a delicate kick down the left and just got a hand to it ahead of Matias Moroni as it bounced wickedly behind the tryline. Scrum-half Benoit Paillauge landed the conversion to make it 7-3.
An offside in the backline at a lineout gave Paillauge a penalty from further out on the left and he stretched the lead to 10-3.
Rattez showed ambition as he took a quick lineout on his own line and looked to open up play out. But when he game stopped for a lineout, Guy Porter lay on the turf near halfway after being hurt in a collision and left the field as Kini Murimurivalu ran on from the bench.
A scrum penalty on the French 10-metre line gave Ford an option to the corner, which raised the voices in the stands again, but after two carries among the forwards, Montpellier got over the ball and gained the penalty.
After full-back Anthony Bouthier made a confident catch from a testing Ford kick soon afterwards, Tigers had a penalty at the breakdown on the 10-metre line but the fly-half was off target.
Alex Lozowski then pushed Tigers back with a well-placed kick over Steward on the Leicester right, with Brink leaving due to injury to be replaced by Tommy Reffell before Tom Youngs could throw to the lineout inside his own 22.
When the whistle went again as Tigers set up their lineout drive, No8 Alexandre Becognee was sent to the sin bin after an earlier warning for a mounting penalty count.
The forwards drove again with Genge taking on the play and, despite losing the initial lineout platform, Tigers had another chance when the clearing kick just cleared the 22 and this time they made it count.
Youngs took possession at the back of an incredible 20-metre drive from the forwards and, with advantage being played, Murimurivalu was brought down just short but Wells picked up and reached over bodies on the line to score.
Ford’s conversion levelled the scores at 10-10 with five minutes remaining in the half.
A frantic spell from Bouthier’s counter-attack looked dangerous and, when Moroni and Muriurivalu combined over the ball, the whistle went in Montpellier’s favour but this time Paillauge hooked his kick wide as the first half came to a close with scores level.
A strong chase forced a Montpellier knock-on from the kick-off at the start of the second half and they were penalised at the scrum out wide on their right. Ford nudged play to the corner and, with advantage being played again, Tigers opened up play first to the right where Steward carried strongly and then in the left-hand corner where Nemani stretched out to dot down.
The referee, though, checked for a Steward knock-on and play came back for the penalty following another warning to captain Guilardo.
Another attack brought another penalty and a yellow card for the skipper with Tigers five metres out from the tryline.
Ben Youngs was sent on as his brother lined up the throw-in as Tigers worked the lineout drill again and it was Wiese on the bottom of the pile of bodies credited with the score. Ford added an immaculate kick from the left touchline for a 17-10 lead on 47 minutes.
Tigers were quickly penalised in defence, though, and Paillauge gratefully added the three points.
The scrum-half, though, then failed to retrieve a kick in the corner and Montpellier were pushed back again.
But they claimed the next score and a vital one at that, making the most of a counter-attack from Arthur Vincent and quickly loading the right side where Bouthier found Johan Goosen to score.
Paillauge, though, saw his conversion bounce out after remarkably hitting posts as the French led 18-17.
Ford pushed a penalty down the left and enjoyed building phases but met strong defence until Ford called for a drop-goal effort but he pushed it past the right-hand post.
A teasing kick over his shoulder from Youngs put Montpellier back on to their five-metre line, but they managed to play out from a lineout as World Cup winners Handre Pollard and Cobus Reinach were added to the backline.
A superb turnover on halfway gave Tigers a chance to get forward again but Ford’s kick into space down the middle ran over the tryline.
The work of Wells over the ball on halfway was rewarded with an important penalty and Ford prodded down the left again.
Montpellier met their rivals on the gainline but Tigers stayed patient as they tried again with Moroni on the left before spilled ball at a lineout provided a reprieve.
When Montpellier gained a penalty just inside their own half, Pollard took on the kick but put it wide.
Zack Henry, on for Nadolo, twice fielded long kicks as Montpellier forced Tigers to play from long distance and a huge kick-chase from another Ford tester could have brought more reward as put-in at the scrum went to the French halfway inside their own territory and they were then able then to close out the final minutes with ball in the forwards upfield.