Leicester Tigers were beaten 30-6 by league leaders Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on Sunday in Round 12 of the Aviva Premiership season.
Starting the game in ninth place in the table and in their first New Year's Eve fixture since 1988 – when they won at Nuneaton – Tigers trailed 6-3 at half-time after penalties from Henry Slade and Gareth Steenson against one from George Ford.
Almost the entire first half was played within 30 metres of the Tigers tryline, but the defence stood up to everything thrown at them with Ford levelling the scores on the only entry to the Chiefs 22 before Steenson chipped over his penalty on the stroke of half-time.
The visitors started the second half brightly too, with Ford again levelling the scores before the defending champions began to pull away.
Scores from Dom Armand, Henry Slade and Jonny Hill put the hostr in command before Jack Yeandle added their bonus-point score with time already up.
Chasing a fourth away win in the Aviva Premiership season following victories at Harlequins, London Irish and Newcastle, but a first since Round 7, Tigers gave a first start to hooker Tafatu Polota-Nau, and was a late change when Jonny May was switched to full-back in place of Mathew Tait, with Nick Malouf coming in on the wing.
After a brief heavy shower, the game kicked off under blue skies on a chilly afternoon in Devon, with Chiefs skipper Steenson getting the action under way. Luke Hamilton knocked on from a scuffed kick and the scrum brought a first penalty which Chiefs threateningly chipped into the corner.
But Tigers withstood the first drive and then won turnover ball before referee Craig Maxweell-Keys awarded a penalty and Ford vkicked play up towards halfway.
Malouf was then penalised as he tried to hack the ball at a ruck and Exeter went back to the left-hand corner but kicked the ball out on the opposite wing as play opened up.
Chiefs wing Olly Woodburn sniffed out a half-chance with a break on the Tigers 22 before Dan Cole cut him down with a superb tackle, but Tigers were finding it hard to get out of their own territory as the opening 15 minutes were played entirely in their half.
A penalty on the right side of the Chiefs attack once again allowed the hosts to kick into the corner, but replacement hooker Jack Yeandle over-threw at the lineout and George Ford cleared.
A chip over the Chiefs defence gave Matt Toomua a chance to carry into the Chiefs half, but when Tigers kicked ball away, Jack Nowell returned it with interest and gained reward with a breakthrough penalty when May was whistled in possession on halfway. Slade landed the kick to finally break the deadlock on 25 minutes.
Tigers gained some decent reward at scrum-time, with Dan Cole’s battle with Alex Hepburn producing a couple of penalties, and when Thomas Waldrom was then penalised at a breakdown on halfway, Ford was able to put Tigers into the Chiefs 22 for the first time on 33 minutes.
Chiefs knocked-on as they read the lineout throw but from the scrum another big push from Tigers brought a penalty and Ford pointed to the posts. His kick from the right side of the 22 made it 3-3.
A dart from Nowell threatened the Tigers defence but his pass was dropped by Don Armand in support and play restarted with a scrum. This time, though, the visitors’ pack was judged at fault by referee Maxwell-Keys and Steenson kicked to make it 6-3 with the half-time whistle just seconds away.
Tigers had an immediate chance to respond at the start of the second period, with May making a break in midfield and Chiefs penalised in the tackle. Ford made no mistake with the kick to level the scores for a second time.
The visitors then enjoyed lengthy possession just 10 metres shy of the Exeter tryline, carrying through the forwards as they tried to make a breakthrough. But Chiefs covered in defence and moments later grabbed the opening try of the game after a set of phases near the Tigers line.
Back-rower Armand eventually pushed his way over next to the posts and Steenson added the conversion for a 13-6 lead on 55 minutes.
A mazy run from May gave Tigers a good platform in attack, with Cole prominent in his carrying again and Tuilagi getting his hands on the ball to test the defence, before the referee penalised the visitors just two metres out from the tryline.
At the other end, Chiefs benefited from a lucky break for their second try in the 64th minute, with Slade running free after May had attempted to hook loose ball back near halfway. Steenson’s conversion made it 20-6.
The home team thought they’d had another lucky break just minutes later when Nic White hacked loose ball up towards the line and dotted down, only for the referee to confirm with assistance from the TMO that Sam Simmonds had knocked on in the tackle on halfway.
The home crowd did not have long to wait, though, as lock Jonny Hill finished in the left-hand corner after Tigers had been pinned back near the line as the lead stretched out to 25-6.
The scoreline was tough on Tigers who had stuck to the task manfully throughout but couldn’t find a decisive break in attack to go with their hard work in defence, and it got worse in the last minute of the game when Chiefs set up a driving maul from a close-range lineout and replacement hooker Yeandle got the touchdown for a bonus-point score.