Two tries from Chris Ashton and one from Freddie Steward gave Leicester Tigers a 22-17 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on Sunday.
Ashton got the visitors off to a perfect start with an early score in the Gallagher Premiership Round 21 encounter and Tigers had the bulk of possession and territory in the opening half as they led 12-0 at the break following Steward’s score on his return from international duty.
They increased the lead to 19 points in the second half when Ashton equalled the Premiership record of 92 tries held by Tom Varndell but then had to withstand a fightback from the hosts before finally taking the four points with a big defensive effort in the closing stages after six successive defeats in Devon.
Steward was joined in the matchday 23 by fellow England players Ellis Genge, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Ollie Chessum and Nic Dolly in the first game since the end of the Six Nations, while Hanro Liebenberg ran out for his 50th appearance for Tigers.
Exeter boss Rob Baxter included England duo Sam Simmonds and Henry Slade though Jack Nowell suffered an arm injury in England’s game against France last week and Scotland captain Stuart Hogg was rested.
Liebenberg’s early chargedown after Ford had got the game underway kept play at the Exeter end of the field and it remained there as Ben Youngs was impeded at a ruck under the posts and penalties began to stack up against the hosts.
After referee Luke Pearce spoke to the home side’s captain Joe Simmonds, Tigers held on to the ball and, when Youngs wrestled possession back from a static maul, George Ford judged his crosskick to perfection for Ashton to catch and run in to score.
Ford’s conversion attempt thumped back out off the right-hand post, but his prompting took play back to the Ashton wing moments later before Exeter were able to play out from the lineout and a penalty for offside which finally gave Simmonds the chance to kick well upfield.
They used the position to build some promising possession, with big carries from their back-rowers. But when scrum-half Sam Maunders picked up ball 10 metres out, the Tigers defence quickly closed in and won a penalty on the floor.
A towering kick from Ford had Simmonds back under his own posts and, although he juggled before making the catch, Tom O’Flaherty arrived in support to kick clear.
After a high tackle on Josh Hodge near halfway, Slade planted the penalty into the right-hand corner. A quick exchange at the lineout put flanker Jacques Vermeulen in possession but he was forced him into touch just short of the line.
Vermeulen, though, left the field on a yellow card after a deliberate knock-on after 24 minutes as he tried to block an offload from Nemani Nadolo near the touchline.
Tigers were quickly back on the attack, but when they were forced back by the defence, they were also marched back by the referee for a second time in the opening 25 minutes after Pearce blew in Exeter’s favour near the touchline.
Stolen lineout ball and a carry from Genge as he chased a chip from Youngs got Tigers moving in attack again and then Ford’s teasing kick almost brought a score for Dan Kelly, only for the ball to escape his grasp over the tryline.
Seconds later, though, there was no mistake as Youngs chipped through and, as the bounce favoured Steward, he reached out to score. With Ford having treatment to an ankle knock, Kelly kicked the extras to make it 12-0.
Guy Porter’s kickchase forced Hodge into a handling error and gave Tigers more set-piece ball as Freddie Burns ran on to replace the injured Ford and play returned to the hosts’ 22 before they managed to counter-ruck and clear.
Tigers were penalised on halfway as Steward leapt for a high ball, giving Exeter territory for the first time in a lengthy spell. When Dave Ewers carried on the right, they threatened briefly until Julian Montoya capitalised on defensive work by Eli Snyman and Joe Heyes to win a penalty.
Play was brought back by the TMO, though, and a penalty awarded against Ashton for a tip tackle in the build-up. Simmonds refused the three points to go to the left and play remained there for two more penalties before Tigers held up one last charge for the line to bring the half to a close with Tigers still 12 points in front.
There were no changes to the line-ups as Exeter restarted in the sunshine and they held attacking ball for the opening few minutes before an error near halfway led to a third try from Tigers and a second for Ashton.
As Exeter played to their left, two attackers over-ran a pass, Ashton picked up one-handed and then had the pace to stay clear before dotting down and Burns added the kick for a 19-0 lead.
Nadolo was yellow-carded as he was adjudged to have committed a deliberate knock-on just inside the Tigers half on 50 minutes and soon afterwards Exeter were on the scoreboard as they built from the back of a scrum and big carries up front for Dave Ewers to score. The Simmonds conversion made it 7-19.
Tommy Reffell and Jack van Poortvliet were sent on from the bench as the game restarted, with just a couple of minutes left on the Nadolo sin bin and the wing was quickly back on the ball from the back of a lineout, with Exeter penalised at the breakdown, and Burns kicked to make it 22-7.
Porter launched a counter-attack when he ripped ball from Woodburn and the backline led the charge upfield to pen their hosts in their own territory before successive penalty awards took play back into the Tigers 22.
This time, Exeter kept play in the forwards and pounded towards the tryline, met by a succession of Tigers tacklers, before Jonny Gray forced his way over. But after checks with the TMO, there was no firm evidence of grounding.
Play restarted with a penalty, though, and this time Exeter celebrated a score from prop Patrick Schickerling. The conversion made it 14-22 with seven minutes left on the clock.
Then a Simmonds penalty set up a tense finish, closing the gap to five points and giving fresh voice to the home crowd.
Another penalty provided another platform but Exeter failed to get men off the floor in the lineout and Jasper Wiese charged out with the ball.
The final minutes saw Exeter in possession but Tigers retained discipline and organisation in defence, finally pushing them back to their own tryline to bring the final whistle from Pearce.