Jonah Holmes ran in four tries as Leicester Tigers got the European Challenge Cup campaign off to a perfect start with a 41-20 victory over Pau at Welford Road on Saturday.
Early tries from George Worth and Holmes put Tigers in a commanding position at 17-3 in the team’s first-ever appearance in the competition. And, after a try from their rivals, Holmes ran in his second to secure a 24-13 lead at half-time.
The Wales international wing completed his treble early in the second half and then added a fourth with 10 minutes remaining to send the home crowd away happy.
Challenge Cup winners in 2000 and making a first visit to Welford Road since 2000/01, Pau came into the game in third place in the French TOP14 league, and showed some of their attacking threat as they stayed in the contest, though they also met determined defence in their phases within scoring range.
George Ford, who got the game started after Remembrance commemorations in the closest home game to Armistice Day, was joined by fellow World Cup silver medallists Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Ellis Genge in the Tigers line-up, while Jaco Taute was added to the matchday squad for the first time.
Tigers started brightly with Sione Kalamafoni and Ifereimi Boladau carrying well and, despite seeing a chance go begging on the right when the final pass fell short of Jonah Holmes, they took the lead with a Ford penalty when Pau were penalised at a breakdown.
Both teams had been forced into an early change with Pau losing flanker Pierrick Gunther and then Sam Aspland-Robinson being helped off, to be replaced by Worth as EW Viljoen moved to the Tigers wing.
Pau’s first attack also brought three points, carrying purposefully around the Tigers 22 and then getting a shot at goal for Tom Taylor after the hosts had been whistled for a high tackle, levelling the scores with 10 minutes gone.
Tigers got the opening try, though, building from more positive work in the forwards to set up space on the right and Worth read the space and timing perfectly to run in.
Ford added the kick to make it 10-3 in Tigers’ favour and he had the ball back on the tee just two-and-a-half minutes later when Holmes read a mix-up in the Pau midfield to gather a kindly bouncing ball and run in for try number two.
But the visitors showed their own threats when they were held up over the tryline twice after set-pieces just five metres out.
Then, at the third attempt, after meeting more stern resistance, they finally found the gap to score, with scrum-half Thibault Daubagna providing the final reach for the line after Watsoni Votu had been stopped just short.
And they had an opportunity moments later to level the scores, only to find themselves back under their own posts.
First, the visitors picked up Tigers loose ball near halfway and broke clear, only to miss their own pass just 25 metres out. Tigers made the most of the escape as they quickly got ball to Holmes on the right and, from deep inside his own half, he beat two defenders tight to the touchline and ran in for his second score of the day. Ford’s conversion made it 24-10 on the half-hour.
Pau thought they’d scored again with four minutes remaining in the half as they showed quick hands on the ball down the right. But they were held up once more in the corner.
Tigers met fire with fire at the five-metre scrum, but Pau retained ball near the line until rewarded with a penalty award from Georgian official Nika Amashukeli in front of the posts which Taylor kicked to make it 24-13 at half-time.
Guy Thompson replaced Ifereimi Boladau at half-time in the Tigers back row and there was an early chance after a big push up front allowed the backline to make the most of space but Viljoen was closed out five metres from the tryline.
The home pack made sure there was no easy escape for the visitors, and had added Genge to the front row as Holmes completed his hat-trick with a clever finish on the right which also brought the bonus-point score.
Ford added the kick from the touchline to make it 31-13 and there was a flare-up among the forwards after the restart which the referee dealt with by speaking to both captains.
Play resumed with a Pau penalty for offside but, when they played into the corner, the Tigers pack hit them backwards and then wrapped up ball to have put-in at the restart.
But Pau were enjoying their spell of pressure close to the Tigers line and, despite seeing wing Bastian Pourailly hit into touch by Viljoen as he reached to the line, play was brought back for a penalty as Tigers lost Kalamafoni to a yellow card.
Another penalty followed at a scrum against a seven-man pack and Holmes was drafted into the back row when Pau called for the set-piece again. Tigers resisted again and then drew a big cheer from the home crowd when the whistle blew in their favour at the next attempt.
Taute emerged for his debut as a replacement for Ford, with Reid moving back to fly-half, and was almost gifted a scoring chance when Pau miss-kicked behind their own lines. But the visiting defence quickly scrambled back to keep him out.
Both sets of coaches emptied their benches with the game into its final quarter and Kalamafoni returned with Tigers back on their own five-metre line for another defensive set-piece which ended with replacement lock Fabrice Metz barging through to score. The conversion from Taylor made it 31-20 but reminded Tigers there was still a game to be won with quarter of an hour remaining.
Reid settled any jangling nerves with a penalty which made the advantage 14 points again before Holmes finished off a quick attack instigated by Ben White to claim his fourth score of the day and his eighth in eight games so far this season to go with the man-of-the-match award.