Leicester Tigers were beaten 23-19 at Harlequins on Friday evening but took a losing bonus point with a last-gasp try from Mike Fitzgerald in Round 21 of the Gallagher Premiership season.
Tigers, chasing the two points that would make them mathematically safe from the threat of relegation, led 12-10 at half-time thanks to four George Ford penalties, despite losing Guy Thompson and Mike Williams to injury.
But a period of indiscipline in the second half proved costly as Marcus Smith's penalties edged the hosts in front and they then grabbed a late try through Semi Kunatani following another penalty which looked like denying Tigers any reward for their evening's work.
Then, with the 80 minutes already elapsed, Fitzgerald dived over following a lineout in the left-hand corner to take the gap over bottom-of-the-table Newcastle to 10 points ahead of their Round 21 trip to Gloucester.
Telusa Veainu made his first Gallagher Premiership start since September and Sam Aspland-Robinson came into the backline against his former club.
Kick-off followed a minute’s silence in respect of victims of the events in Sri Lanka on Easter weekend and Quins quickly produced an overlap on the right side, only for Veainu to step in an intercept with two players on his outside.
Tigers kept hold of possession in the middle of the pitch and when Wayne Barnes penalised Quins on the floor, Ford kicked his team 3-0 in front with three minutes on the clock.
Quins turned down a possible kick at goal moments later when Tigers were penalised at a ruck, with Smith taking play into the 22, and the decision paid off when the lineout gave them good ball and, already paying with penalty advantage, Care dotted down on the line. Smith added the kick for a 7-3 lead.
Tigers showed good composure on the ball from the restart, carrying through the forwards and then looking for width from Jonny May before Quins were called for offside. Ford kicked the penalty to cut the deficit to a point with 15 minutes gone.
When Quins knocked-on in attack shortly afterwards, Tigers quickly got ball through hands, but then also spilled it and Smith threatened to find a gap with a kick in behind before Aspland-Robinson covered ground to gather and call the mark.
It was a bright opening from both teams on a damp and breezy evening in the capital, with Tigers determined to play ball in hand whenever the opportunity presented itself and more turnover ball in the centre of the field saw Toomua and Veainu spread the play across the field before the full-back was tackled into touch.
Thompson left the field on 20 minutes, replaced by Brendon O’Connor, and the Kiwi flanker was straight into the action, first from a Tigers lineout and then in defence as Jack Clifford broke the line.
Tigers were penalised at the breakdown, though, and Smith kicked the points to make it 10-6 and Geordan Murphy was forced into another change when Williams left the field, with Mike Fitzgerald joining the back row.
A penalty down the right side gave Tigers a good platform for attack, with Ford and Toomua opening up play before the whistle went against Quins. Ford, from just inside the 22, added his third penalty of the evening to make it 10-9.
Ellis Genge made two strong carries on halfway as Tigers built some phases and Aspland-Robinson put Quins under pressure when he grabbed Gabriel Ibitoye close to the Quins tryline from Ford’s precise kick into the corner.
Tigers got closer to a score when Genge pushed off two would-be tacklers and Cole also carried in the heart of the Quins defence, but just as they sensed a chance, Spencer was robbed of ball 10 metres out and the hosts were able to play out.
Quins, though, lost Clifford to a yellow card on 37 minutes as he made contact with Veainu as the full-back kicked high. Referee Barnes checked the replays before issuing the card and Tigers played the penalty down the right. Quins stood up in defence of the lineout though then missed their own man at their own throw just moments later to see Tigers kept building pressure on the line.
After a series of carries among the forwards, Tigers got to within reach of the tryline but Quins were whistled for offside. Ford kicked the penalty from in front of the posts for a 10-12 lead in the last action of the half.
Veainu, who had left the field for a head injury assessment following the clash with Clifford, returned for the start of the second half and Quins were back up to full strength six minutes later when the back-rower returned from the sin bin.
Full-back Veainu was quickly involved as he combined with Aspland-Robinson in looking to break out of defence, but with Ford wrapped up man-and-ball as he accepted the pass, Tigers passed forward and the set-piece put-in was with Quins 25 metres out. And they were rewarded with a penalty, the referee judging Tigers had collapsed on the contact and Smith landed the kick to give his side the lead at 13-12.
A penalty earned on the floor on halfway by Alex Dombrandt gave Quins some territory and Tigers were immediately whistled again on their own 10-metre line, with Smith adding the points for a 16-12 lead approaching the hour.
Smart work on their left flank released Ibitoye but Aspland-Robinson read the play perfectly to bring him down and knock the ball loose as the wing saw space in front.
Tigers won the set-piece but played into trouble as they were penalised for obstruction and Smith pushed play down to the left-hand corner. The forwards kept hold of possession but were met with some clinical defence and spilled ball gave Tigers the chance to clear.
When the whistle blew again moments later, Smith went for touch again but did not gain much advantage, with the lineout outside the Tigers 22. But he had an immediate chance to aim for goal when Barnes blew once more at the breakdown. This time, from 20 metres out, he pulled his kick wide and it remained 16-12.
Tigers continued to fall on the wrong side of the referee, though, giving Smith the chance to take play down the left touchline yet again as the clock ticked past 65 minutes. After gathering ball in the forwards, scrum-half Care broke away on the blindside and claimed a try. The referee, checking with TMO, ruled he had been guilty of a double movement and Tigers could kick clear from the penalty.
It was an untidy phase of the game for Tigers, but a break from replacement Ben White provided some attacking impetus as well as some relief for the defence, and Jordan Olowofela – on for Matt Smith – was straight into the action as he brought down Mike Brown just as the Quins full-back looked to latch on to a loose clearing kick.
A penalty conceded against a Quins maul had Tigers back-pedalling once more and this time there was no escape as Semi Kunatani picked up ball as the forwards hit the floor and raced under the posts. James Lang, on at fly-half, added the conversion as Quins stretched beyond losing bonus point range at 23-12.
Olowofela left the field as Lang made the kick, hurt in attempting to deny the score, with George Worth coming into the backline for the closing minutes of the game.
O’Connor made a big intervention in defence as Quins tried again, winning a penalty just 15 metres from his own tryline and then seeing Quins marched back for some backchat to the referee. Tigers had another penalty as they tried to open up the midfield and Ford pinged his kick into the corner.
This time, after Kerr and Gigena had pushed up towards the line, Fitzgerald found room to dive over and secure the valuable bonus point with the clock already past 80 minutes. Ford added the kick to make it 23-19 as the game came to a close.