Leicester Tigers suffered a first defeat of their European Challenge Cup campaign as Pau won 24-17 at the Stade du Hameau on Saturday but the bonus point grabbed with a penalty 10 seconds from full-time was enough to book a home quarter-final.
Tigers headed to the south of France with a quarter-final place already in the bag after wins in each of the opening five rounds. But, after victory over Castres in Pool 1 on Friday evening, they still needed to take something from their own Pool 5 encounter to book a home game in the last eight.
Pau, with three wins and defeats away to Tiger and Cardiff Blues in the pool, kicked off in the knowledge that only a win would give them a say in the knockout stages.
Tigers, making a first visit to Pau in almost two decades, were led out by Manu Tuilagi, taking the captaincy for a first time, and with Geordan Murphy rotating the squad as he has done throughout the tournament.
Looking to avenge a 41-20 defeat at Welford Road in Round 1, Pau got off to the best possible start with two converted tries in the opening six minutes before Tigers steadied the ship and got off the mark with a Noel Reid score.
But Pau, making the most of possession and territory advantage, and using heavy carriers up front as well as their threats out wide, added a third try just a minute before half-time when Tigers were down to 14 men after a yellow card for George Worth and the home side led 24-7 at the break.
Tigers started the second half strongly but had to wait until the hour mark for another try, but held their composure to stay within reach of the precious bonus point secured with the late kick.
Pau got the game under way with the sun and the breeze at their backs and they had to wait just three minutes to get points on the board with a try on the right from wing Vincent Pinto after outnumbering Tigers out wide.
Antoine Hastoy added the conversion and the fly-half had the ball on the tee again just two minutes later following another score from Pinto as Pau attacked out wide at every opportunity.
The hosts threatened again with numbers on the left following a tap penalty near halfway but referee Ben Whitehouse called them back for a forward pass and, from the scrum, the left boot of Rory Hughes took play 40 metres upfield.
Adam Thompstone’s kick-chase took play up to the opposition 22 and from anther scrum, Tigers had a penalty which Hardwick nudged into the right-hand corner. After safely securing ball, Tigers quickly played out to the left and, with penalty advantage again, Hardwick chipped over the defence but Thompstone at full stretch couldn’t get a decisive touch over the tryline.
Coming back for the penalty, Tigers kept ball in the forwards after Joe Batley’s lineout catch in the corner and, with backs joining the push to the line, Reid added the finishing touch. Hardwick added a perfect kick from the right touchline to make it 14-7 on 17 minutes.
Reid was then back in defence to intercept a Pau break from halfway and also led the race to a kick in behind the Tigers defence before picking his way back out of the 22.
Worth turned attack into defence with a charge out from the back and his neat kick down the left touchline almost brought a second score as Hughes slid to hack ball on and Reid dotted down. But replays showed the ball had bounced into touch as Hughes intervened. It was also the Scot’s last involvement as he left the field, replaced by Jonah Holmes.
Tigers lost Worth to a yellow card for a high tackle on Hastoy but kept out three more waves of Pau attacks before Hastoy landed a penalty and then converted a third try when prop Teddy Leffler finished a lineout drive on the right to make it 24-7 at half-time.
Tuilagi’s 30-metre break at the start of the second half took Tigers to within 10 metres of the tryline and, although he found Holmes in support, Pau quickly recovered to shut out the wing.
Hardwick was then denied in the opposite corner but the Tigers pack had their rivals under pressure on their own tryline, winning the scrum battle and inching towards the line only for Thompstone to be held up over the whitewash.
It was a let-off for Pau as they also won a penalty at the resulting scrum in front of the posts after almost 10 minutes of play inside their own 22 at the start of the half.
But they made the most of their opening phases of play in attack, eventually creating a chance for Ben Smith on the right. He reached out to get the ball down just as Tuilagi made the tackle and, although the crowd celebrated a fourth score, the referee wanted to chek the replays and disallowed it.
Dan Cole and Greg Bateman joined the Tigers front row and Jordan Taufua reinforced the back row, making an immediate impact with a penalty gain at the breakdown.
Another break by Tuilagi, this time wide on the right, beat three defenders before Pau were penalised at the breakdown and Hardwick took play within 15 metres of the tryline and this time, after Ifereimi Boladau attacked the line, replacement scrum-half Ben White picked up and darted in to score. Hardwick’s kick made it 24-14 with quarter of an hour still to play.
But also lost a man to the sin-bin, though somehow sent on a replacement and continued with 15 men for a few moments before the situation was rectified and play continued with Tigers on the attack.
White almost wriggled free again 10 metres out before play was called back for a Tigers scrum against a seven-man Pau pack.
But after winning a free-kick at the set-piece, Pau made the most of the escape as they kept play in Tigers territory, meeting stern defence but recycling ball for multiple phases through their forwards. When they finally gained a penalty for a high tackle, they kicked to the corner but the Tigers defence wrapped up the maul and earned a scrum of their own.
Tigers kept play in the opposition half and eventually won a scrum penalty which provided one last chance.
Hardwick was trusted with the kick from 40 metres and safely made it with just 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Although Pau did restart, it was Tigers who got the ball off the field with one point safely banked.