A last-minute kick from Matt Toomua secured a losing bonus point for Leicester Tigers in a 24-17 defeat by Gloucester Rugby at Kingsholm on Saturday.
Tries from Mick Malouf – who later left the field injured – and Joe Ford had Tigers in front in the first half in the Round 14 encounter in the Aviva Premiership season. But on both occasions Gloucester responded in kind as half-time arrived with the score tied at 14-14.
A period down to 14 men, after a yellow card to Logovi’i Mulipola, proved costly early in the second period as Billy Twelvetrees kicked a penalty and then converted a try from Matt Scott as the hosts led by 10 points with 20 minutes remaining.
Tigers then spent a lengthy period defending their own line before Toomua’s kick secured some consolation.
Gloucester began the day in fifth place in the Premiership table with eight wins from 13 games – dropping one spot after Bath’s big win over Northampton on Friday evening – and with six more than eighth-placed Leicester as the clubs met for a third time in the season following wins for Tigers in the league and cup in the autumn.
Tigers welcomed back Telusa Veainu, Manu Tuilagi and Tom Youngs after injury for the first Premiership fixture of the vital Six Nations period, while Brendon O’Connor made his 50th appearance for the club. Former Leicester duo Fraser Balmain and Ed Slater started among the Gloucester replacements, while Billy Twelvetrees started at centre, though Owen Williams was left out after returning from the Wales squad.
The opening exchanges were played out in the Gloucester half, Tigers showing strong work off the ball and setting up a decent lineout drive which opened a gap for Matt Toomua, only for the ball to fall loose as he tried to offload.
Gloucester felt their way into the game with two breaks down their right which had The Shed in good voice, but Tigers cleared well from their lineout as Sam Harrison kicked back up to halfway.
The breakthrough for Tigers came, ironically, just as Gloucester looked to be building a head of steam in attack with Malouf stepping in to intercept a weak pass and running clear from just outside his own 22. Joe Ford added the extras for a seven-point lead on 12 minutes.
Smart work from Brendon O’Connor earned Tigers a penalty just inside their own half with 17 minutes gone and Ford pushed play down the right for a lineout on the 22. But with The Cherry and Whites lined up in defence, Tigers were pushed back and also suffered a blow when Sione Kalamafoni needed physio treatment after a carry in midfield.
Jason Woodward threatened the Tigers line when he picked off a chip from Ford and launched a counter-attack before Tuilagi and Malouf combined to close the door near the touchline.
A soft pitch and biting wind did not make it easy, but both sides looked determined to keep the ball in play, which only added to the drain on energy levels as the half progressed.
Gloucester lost wing Ollie Thorley to injury after 25 minutes, with Matt Scott joining the backline just as Veainu produced a 60-metre clearing kick which penned the hosts back.
Veainu over-shot his next clearing kick, though, bringing Gloucester back into the Tigers half with a lineout on their left. Big tackles from Toomua and then Kitchener snuffed out danger and then the Tigers lock latched on to a wayward pass on halfway to overturn possession.
But Gloucester did not need a second invitation as they made use of extra numbers out wide to set Henry Trinder away on a 50-metre run to the line, with Malouf injured in making a tackle earlier in the move.
Gloucester had to wait to take their conversion while Malouf received lengthy medical attention, with Mathew Tait sent on as a replacement. Malouf was eventually led off, to warm applause from all four sides of the stadium, as Twelvetrees knocked over the kick to level the scores entering the last 10 minutes of the half.
But Tigers produced an immediate reply from Ford with his first try for the club.
With play bogged down on halfway, O’Connor arrived on a perfect line to pick his way through and, when Kitchener arrived in support, his pass put Ford in next to the posts. The fly-half added the conversion to make it 14-7 in the visitors’ favour.
A winding run from Woodward got Gloucester back on the attack and they kept play moving to left where Trinder had an easy run-in from 10 metres for his second score of the afternoon. Twelvetrees struck the conversion firmly through the posts in a blustery wind to tie the scores at 14-14 on 36 minutes.
There was one more opportunity before the half-time whistle as Gloucester were penalised in their own half with just 30 seconds remaining after good work in possession by O’Connor. Ford eventually elected to go for goal from wide on the left, but pushed his kick across the posts to bring the action to an end.
There we no changes at half-time, with Gloucester fly-half Billy Burns getting the game back under way.
Tigers has a scare on 45 minutes when Gloucester created a four-on-one wide on their right, only to wrapped up by the defence before they could move the ball.
But they stayed on the front foot and, when they were awarded a penalty 15 metres out, Logovi’i Mulipola was sin-binned as he tackled Willi Heinz as he tapped to go. Twelvetrees kicked the penalty to put the home side ahead for the first time in the afternoon at 17-14.
In their next attack, started from deep in their own half, Gloucester appeared to be whiskers away from a score on the left but the chip kick evaded Woodward’s dive and referee Doyle adjudged there had been a Tigers player held back in defence and awarded a penalty anyway.
Tatafu Polota-Nau and Harry Wells replaced skipper Youngs and Mike Fitzgerald when the game restarted but Gloucester retained the ball through phase after phase just over halfway and then a Scott kick had the visitors racing back towards their own line.
Pat Cilliers was sent on as a temporary front-row replacement, with Tait making way, as Tigers defended a man short.
Tuilagi made two big shots where O’Connor was also prominent, but Gloucester kept their patience and made good use of the extra man out ide as Scott claimed their third try of the day.
Mike Williams took a heavy knock in the build-up to the score and had to be led off the field, with Luke Hamilton coming into the back row.
After the change had been made, Twelvetrees kicked his third conversion of the day to stretch the Cherries’ lead to 24-14 with three-quarters of the match played.
Gareth Owen replaced Ford in the Tigers backline, with Toomua switching to fly-half.
Ruan Ackermann elected to tap from a penalty in the Tigers 22, in the hunt for a fourth try, but the visitors quickly closed in and had the bonus of a knock-on and scrum put-in as they looked for another foothold in the game.
Harry Simmons was introduced for his Premiership debut on 67 minutes and his first involvement was in clearing up the 22 after another big spell of Gloucester pressure.
There was no let-up as a penalty kept them at close range. Even after Adam Thompstone had produced a big tackle on Woodward, play came back to the corner for another penalty from a lineout and Gloucester went for the set-piece again with the clock ticking into the final 10 minutes.
Tigers withstood the drive but had spent more than five minutes pined almost on their own line before forcing a knock-on. and Simmons was eventually forced to kick just to relieve the pressure.
A 40-metre run from O’Connor gained valuable go-forward on the left, with Kitchener carrying well again in support, but Gloucester got back to spread across the field and keep Tigers out.
Burns stepped in to intercept on the touchline but his kick flew straight out and Tigers set from a lineout 22 metres out on the left. After securing possession, though, ball was then lost in midfield.
Gloucester made an unforced error in kicking straight out and Tigers tried again, Tait providing some pace coming into the line, and there was one more chance when Veainu wriggled free in his own half and chipped ahead. Ben Vellacott won the race to the ball, but Gloucester were penalised at the breakdown, giving Toomua the kick to secure a losing bonus point with time already up.