A score in added time from Guy Porter gave Leicester Tigers a last-gasp 28-26 win over Bristol Bears Ashton Gate on Sunday to continue the team's unbeaten run in the final game of the year.
Playing on Boxing Day for the first time since a home win over Newcastle Falcons in 2015, Tigers trailed by 10 points during each half of the game and were still 26-23 down with the clock beyond 80 minutes when a remarkable sequence of events brought the deciding score.
From 13-3 down in the first half, Nemani Nadolo’s converted score brought Tigers back within range of hosts who had lost just one of the teams’ five previous Ashton Gate meetings.
But a second Bristol try put them 10 in front again in the second half before Julian Montoya steered a maul over the line and Tigers levelled the scores entering the final quarter.
But with Jasper Wiese yellow-carded, Bears fly-half Callum Sheedy kicked a three-pointer for a 26-23 advantage in a fractious closing period which looked like providing a first defeat if the season until a sustained and composed attack in the final play brought the winning score.
Tigers travelled on top of the table and with nine wins out of nine in Premiership rugby this season – and 13 out of 13 in all competitions – to face a Bristol side who had lost just one of the last six meetings of the teams.
Nadolo, Matías Moroni, Harry Potter and George Ford all returned to the backline and Marco van Staden started at No8 with Jasper Wiese named among the replacements.
Bristol, playing their first game since the start of December owing to the impact of Covid on their scheduled Champions Cup fixtures, gave away a couple of early penalties and, although they worked hard in defence, the hosts escaped their half of the field only briefly in the opening 15 minutes.
Eventually, Tigers were rewarded with a scrum penalty and Ford kicked the opening points.
Ford’s kicking from hand continued to push Bristol back and when they got upfield with a penalty of their own, the force of the Tigers defence knocked ball loose.
Bristol did think they had a score when Semi Radradra, in his first start of the season, won an aerial contest and ran in but referee Tom Foley called for a TMO check on a knock-on and play came back for a Tigers scrum.
The set-piece brought a penalty award but, when Tigers spilled ball in attack, it proved costly as Bears scrum-half Harry Randall picked up play and ran a diagonal towards the left-hand corner. The defence got back quickly but No8 Fitz Harding picked up recycled ball and bounced over the line. Sheedy’s conversion made it 7-3.
Bristol had already lost wing Toby Fricker to injury and Tigers had to make a change when Marco van Staden was hurt in defence and Jasper Wiese received the call from the bench.
Sheedy added a 35-metre penalty to make it 10-3 on the half-hour but Tigers were then guilty of missing an opportunity after sharp work from Dan Kelly and Freddie Steward before ball was lost in the opposition 22.
Tommy Reffell was quick to clear up ball in defence and then Wiese carried strongly out after a quick penalty opened up play on the Bears’ left.
At the other end, a one-handed catch from Nadolo stretched play on the left wing but Bears quickly hit Kelly in support and two penalties followed to take Bears upfield where Sheedy added another kick for a 13-3 lead on 36 minutes.
But the reply was instant with the try from Nadolo.
It began with Moroni cleverly taking play up the left wing and, as he chipped ahead, Nadolo’s left foot nudged it forward and the big wing scooped up ball and dived over the line with two defenders in close proximity. Referee Foley checked the grounding before being fully satisfied that there had not been a knock-on.
Ford added an excellent conversion to cut the gap to 13-10 just ahead of half-time.
A penalty in the opening minutes at the restart gave Sheedy the chance to put another three points between the teams, but a carry from George Martin brought a penalty in the opposite direction and Ford made no mistake with the kick from 30 metres.
At 16-13, the game was finely poised as Bears played a penalty to touch on the left but Tigers won ball at the lineout for Youngs to kick clear.
A scrum penalty followed but, after taking play to the right, Tigers lost ball at the maul and were then penalised in trying to win it back.
The scrappy restart continued when Bears knocked on as they reached the Tigers 22 but they claimed a second try when Randall took a tap at a free-kick and Radradra offloaded for Ioan Lloyd to score in the corner,
The accuracy of the Tigers set-piece brought a second try, a 20-metre drive from the forwards ending with Montoya’s third try of the season and Ford’s conversion brought the scoreboard back to 23-20 with an hour played.
Tigers missed a chance with lost ball at a lineout but quickly had another from a scrum and Ford’s kick levelled the scores at 23-23.
The score served to increase the tempo, Wiese carrying strongly from the restart and then Porter prodding play down the wing, only to see the ball bounce dead. When play came back for the scrum five metres in from touch and five metres short of halfway, Sheedy took it on but was well short with the kick at goal.
Bristol stayed on the attack, despite a turnover win by Julian Montoya, and Sheedy had another penalty chance after hands in a ruck but pushed it wide.
But a Wiese challenge in attempting to charge down a Sheedy kick brought another opportunity, with the back-rower also sent to the sin bin.
This time the Bears fly-half got his kick correct and put the hosts 26-23 in front with seven minutes remaining.
Bears tried to take the clock down in the opposition half, but were penalised and then knocked-on in their own 22 when Ford’s kick missed touch.
That provided one last scrum and one last chance to take a remarkable victory.
And credit to Borthwick’s men, they kept playing with ball in hand, looking for one more decisive chance. Ford, Steward and Porter were heavily involved in the backline, the forwards did their work too and finally, Ford and Nic Dolly combined to give Porter the chance to run in on the right.
Ford’s kick shaved the far post but it had no effect on the results as the celebrations began in the travelling support.