Leicester Tigers were beaten 40-6 by Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on the opening day of the Gallagher Premiership season.
George Ford gave the visitors an early lead and doubled the advantage with his second kick before Chiefs, who gained momentum in the spell approaching half-time, grabbed two quick scores from Olly Woodburn and Sam Simmonds to lead 14-6 at the break.
Neither side could find an important score in the third quarter of the game, but Chiefs wrestled the initiative with two tries in six minutes just after the hour mark and added two more in the closing four minutes of the game to open their campaign on a winning note and claim a bonus point too.
Tigers, with five opening-day wins in the last six seasons of Premiership action, included debutants David Denton and Will Spencer in the forward pack with fellow newcomers Kyle Eastmond, David Feao and Gaston Cortes on the bench, for the trip to face a Chiefs side who finished eight points clear at the top of the table last May before defeat by Saracens in the Premiership Final.
Both teams went into their opening weekend on the back of two wins in three games during pre-season, with the Chiefs beating Cardiff Blues and Munster while Tigers also beat the Blues and then London Irish.
Ford got the game under way with Tigers wearing the white alternate kit against the black-clad Chiefs, and it was the strength of defence from both teams that was a feature of the first half with ferocious hits all over the pitch.
When Jonny May was penalised for a tackle in the air on Santiago Cordero as he collected a high pass, the Tigers defence stood up and got their reward with a penalty following big shots from Sione Kalamafoni and then Spencer.
Cordero then threatened on the wing but Ben Youngs and Ford combined to chase and then clear before Telusa Veainu sniffed half an opportunity as he won the race to his chip ahead but spilled ball as he attempted to gather it in a good position.
The resulting scrum, though, brought a penalty and a first sight of the posts for Ford, from wide on the right approaching 40 metres out. The kick was good and not only broke the deadlock but also pushed the fly-half to 500 points in his Leicester career in his 63rd appearance.
Back is possession, it was Tigers’ turn to test the defence, with Youngs and Ford looking for an opening and Denton carrying strongly until referee Wayne Barnes awarded Exeter a penalty inside their own 22 after multiple phases of play.
Scrappy ball near halfway was cleared by No8 Sam Simmonds and as he broke a tackle, Exeter got forward with Nic White and the influential Ollie Devoto, but wing Woodburn lost possession as Manu Tuilagi defended in the corner.
Both defences were still making their work count, with Tigers rewarded with a penalty near halfway as they swarmed over a breakdown and another when Chiefs failed to release in the tackle.
Ford called for the tee just two metres inside the Exeter half and calmly pushed the ball through the posts to double the lead at 6-0 on 26 minutes.
But Exeter provided an immediate response, with Matt Kvesic and Alec Hepburn combining at close range before Woodburn dotted down next to the posts. Steenson added the conversion for a 7-6 lead from the first really clear-cut chance created by either team in almost half an hour’s play.
A superb steal from Brendon O’Connor, tracking to make a tackle and instantly ripping back possession, ended another Chief attack, but the hosts were building some momentum and, when Denton was whistled for offside, they were back into the visitors’ 22 and stayed there until they claimed a second try.
This time, No8 Simmonds got the final heave over the line after pressure through the forwards which they maintained despite a huge tackle from Kalamafoni on Hepburn in the build-up. Steenson added the extras to make it 14-6 with two minutes remaining in the half.
Ford, from just beyond the 10-metre line, had one last chance in the half to chip at the deficit, but pushed the kick wide.
Steenson got the second half under way with neither side making any personnel changes, and Tigers were quickly on to the ball with Ford twice taking on the defence with neat footwork and front-rowers Greg Bateman and Tom Youngs carrying with intent.
A scrum penalty given against Bateman released the pressure just 10 metres from the Exeter line and Steenson kicked up to halfway. Tigers recovered possession again and, although they kept it for a long spell, Chiefs made it difficult to get make further territory and threatened a third try when they attacked on their right wing until Ben Youngs got over the ball and won a penalty.
Spencer’s shift ended on 51 minutes, replaced by Harry Wells, and Tatafu Polota-Nau soon joined him in the forward pack as the third quarter of the game was played out almost entirely in the centre of the pitch, with neither side finding any space to put together an attack.
A scrum penalty against Tigers gave Steenson a chance to push play into the corner and, although they quickly spread play away from the lineout, they returned to the forwards and replacement hooker Cowan-Dickie got over the line for their third try, which Steenson converted to push the lead out to 21-6.
David Feao made his debut appearance as a replacement for Bateman entering the final quarter and he was quickly on to the ball as Tigers played through phases again. But they remained 30 metres from the tryline and were penalised on the ball at another breakdown.
Chiefs made the most of the opportunity to get back upfield and when lock Sam Skinner burst through a gap, he passed on to replacement Henry Slade to add a bonus-point try. Steenson’s kick made it 28-6.
Kyle Eastmond, Sam Harrison and Mike Williams were added to the Tigers ranks at the restart, but Tigers were pinned back again and, after a penalty award, Slade hammered the ball into the corner to set up a lineout drive and, although they set it up well, Chiefs were held up by some powerful defence.
Exeter were not to be denied, though, even after missing their man at two consecutive attacking lineouts, as they stayed in control and claimed a fifth try from flanker Kvesic in the left-hand corner after Phil Dollman had been stopped just short.
A sixth quickly followed as Chiefs won turnover ball and Slade offloaded for centre partner Ian Whitten to run in unopposed. Steenson knocked over the extras as the clock ticked down to the 80-minute mark and referee Barnes blew for full-time.