Leicester Tigers were denied opening-day victory by a last-minute try from Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on Saturday.
Tigers had fought their way back from 17-6 down at half-time to lead and had shut out their hosts for almost the entire 40 remaining minutes until Patrick Schickerling finally forced his way over the line for the decisive score and a 24-20 Chiefs win in Round 1 of the Gallagher Premiership season.
It denied Tigers a winning start and a hat-trick of opening-day wins after success in each of the last two years.
The weekend’s games were only confirmed on Friday afternoon following the passing of Her Majesty The Queen, and a period of silent tribute was observed ahead of kick-off, followed by singing of God Save The King and a prayer from the Exeter club chaplain.
After a tight opening quarter, Exeter went 10-3 in front with a penalty try which also saw Freddie Burns sin-binned, and they added their second try just before the break to move into a 14-point lead.
A try from Hanro Liebenberg, in his first game as club captain, got Tigers back into contention in the third-quarter and when Charlie Clare added a second the visitors were finally in front on the four mark.
But they spent a large chunk of the closing quarter in defence, holding up their rivals three times on the tryline before the final, winning score.
Jimmy Gopperth and prop James Cronin made their first league appearances for Tigers, with three more debutants among the replacements, while Exeter also welcomed summer arrivals including lock Jack Dunne and centre Solomone Kata.
Leicester’s victory at Sandy Park last March was a first at the venue since 2014 and also Exeter’s only home defeat in Premiership Rugby in the last seven months.
With Tigers in their new change colours of red and white, Chiefs kicked off and held on to the ball through several phases before being awarded a penalty and, just two minutes into the new season, Joe Simmonds gave them a 3-0 lead.
The next 10 minutes were played close to halfway, until Tommy Reffell won a penalty on the floor and Burns kicked the scores level.
An offside penalty near halfway gave Simmonds the chance to take play down the right touchline for Exeter, but Harry Wells stayed on the ball at the lineout to smother the danger.
A charged-down crosskick led to a key moment with 20 minutes played, as Burns raced back to beat Harvey Skinner to his chip ahead. He got there first but was ruled to have played the ball illegally in-goal and was yellow-carded by referee Christophe Ridley who also awarded the penalty try, deciding the Exeter player would have scored if Tigers’ fly-half had not intervened.
Chris Ashton was hurt in challenging for a high ball, but when he got back to his feet, the referee had already awarded an Exeter penalty on halfway. They were unable to progress at their resulting lineout, though, with Tigers clearing lines with a penalty of their own.
Eli Snyman got a big right hand to Exeter lineout ball to stall the home team, but when Tigers were penalised inside the opposition half, skipper Liebenberg stayed firm at a breakdown to benefit from the whistle.
Tigers enjoyed a good spell of possession in attack but when they were pushed back, Gopperth lined up a drop-goal attempt, only to see it go wide of the left post.
With Burns back on the field, Hosea Saumaki was not far from adding a score as he raced down the left but saw just to see the ball bounce out of his grasp.
There were just two minutes left in the opening half when Olly Woodburn collided with Burns as they chased high ball, and the fly-half was still on the floor when Exeter created a second try, building momentum until Kata ran in to score on the right. Simmonds added the conversion to make it 17-6 at half-time.
Phil Cokanasiga replaced Burns for the star of the second half, with Gopperth moving to 10 in place of Burns.
Tigers were marched back at a penalty on halfway and whistled again just five metres out but responded with a crunching tackle from Cronin on the goalline as Townsend took the tap and which also knocked ball out of his hands.
A bout of kicking from both teams called for patience, but when Dan Cole led the kickchase and forced an error from Townsend, skipper Liebenberg was there to capitalise and score the Tigers’ first try of the season. Gopperth added his first points for the club with the conversion.
Olly Cracknell was introduced to the forward pack on 55 minutes, just as the referee blew against the hosts in defence and Gopperth put the kick into the right-hand corner. Although they were stopped at source, another penalty followed and Liebenberg signalled for the set-piece.
He was rewarded with a drive for the line which brought a try from hooker Clare as the entire pack made it across the line with the referee again signalling a penalty against the hosts to put Tigers in front for the first time at 17-18.
Gopperth added the conversion for a three-point lead but within minutes Exeter thought they’d scored through prop Schickerling, only for it to be denied for a knock-on almost on the tryline. Another TMO intervention also addressed a high tackle in defence and play started again with a penalty to the hosts.
They attacked the line through the forwards but were held up not once but twice as Tigers’ defence got through their work.
Waves of Exeter possession flowed forward and, when a knock-on in the tackle produced a Chiefs scrum, replays came back for a yellow card for a high clear-out, with prop Alec Hepburn the man leaving the field.
Tigers again stood up to phases of attack, knocking ball loose in contact, only for play to come back for a penalty and this time, for a third time, they were held up over the tryline.
Play remained in the Tigers half until Exeter were forced into an error and, from a scrum, Kini Murimurivalu made 50 metres up the touchline, though Harry Potter was unfortunate when Cokanasiga’s chip on the opposite flank bounced just beyond him.
George Martin stretched to bring down Facundo Cordero just as Exeter looked to load their right flank and the tackle forced a knock-on just as Hepburn prepared to return to their front row after the card. A free-kick at the scrum gave Gopperth a chance to boot clear again, followed by the charging red line of his colleagues.
An offside penalty with less than a minute left on the clock provided one final opportunity, Exeter kicking to the right, and this time, they kept control until finally Schickerling got beyond the chalk and Simmonds kicked the conversion to bring the game to a close.