Leicester Tigers were outscored by four tries to three in a 37-24 defeat by Harlequins in Round 9 of the Gallagher Premiership on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon at the Twickenham Stoop.
An early try from Cyle Brink put Tigers in front and Jack Van Poortvliet showed his eye for an opportunity with his first senior score, but Quins claimed three of their own in the opening half to lead 30-17 at the break.
The game had looked finally balanced on the half-hour, but then Marcus Smith added 10 points from a converted try and a penalty to put his team in the driving seat and centre Andre Esterhuizen scored on the stroke of half-time to stretch that advantage.
Quins, in fine form with away victories over Wasps and Bath in recent weeks, added a fourth try at the start of the second period before George Martin claimed his first in Tigers colours.
With more than 50 points in the opening 50 minutes, the final half-hour produced no further scores and Tigers were frustrated when a lineout drive with the clock on zero fell just short at the end of an intriguing battle.
Jaco Taute led out a Tigers XV which totalled fewer appearances for the club than prop Dan Cole, who took his tally to 250 games when he entered the action during the second half. George Ford, Ellis Genge and Ben Youngs were on Six Nations duty with England across the Chertsey Road at Twickenham Stadium.
Quins made a late change on the bench where Santiago Garcia Botta was ruled out and replaced by Jordan Els.
There was an early scare for Tigers with an error at kick-off but, after then winning a penalty at a breakdown close to their own tryline, it Steve Borthwick’s team who were first on the scoreboard.
After an early penalty against Quins and then a word with their captain as tempers flared among the forwards, Tigers made a breakthrough.
From lineout ball and successive carries from Brink, plus a lunge for the tryline by Tomas Lavanini, the South African flanker got back on the ball and forced his way over for his first try in Premiership rugby with just five minutes played. Zack Henry added the conversion.
Quins replied immediately as smart handling at close range following carries by No8 Alex Dombrandt prepared the ground for Mike Brown to score. Smith kicked his first points to leave the scores at 7-7 on 11 minutes.
A break from Van Poortvliet took ball up to the five-metre line and there was plenty of support when Brown took him down. Referee Andrew Woodthorpe whistled for a fourth time in the opening 13 minutes in Tigers’ favour, but this time, after setting up a drive close-in, the defence held out.
Another penalty, this time to Quins after Joe Marler got over ball on the floor, followed and Smith added the three-pointer.
Julian Montoya won turnover ball just inside the Tigers half, but the whistle blew in the opposite direction. This time, when Quins tried to attack down the left, the Argentinian hooker repeated the effort on his own five-metre line and gained the penalty verdict.
Martin then covered a dangerous run by Danny Care to bring him down almost within reach of the tryline and Tigers gathered quickly to block recycled ball.
But quick points in the next five minutes allowed the hosts to stretch out in front.
First, Smith made it 13-7 with a penalty from the left, then the fly-half celebrated his new contract announcement by reading a break by Will Evans to score under the posts and added the extras.
Van Poortvliet’s try, following up a break from fellow academy graduate Freddie Steward, got Tigers back into the game.
It was a superb finish, picking up at a ruck and then beating Care on the right after full-back Steward had gained the initiative with his kick-chase. The conversion from Henry made it 20-14.
Spilled ball and a penalty midway inside the Tigers half brought another sight of the posts and he took his own tally to 18 points with the kick.
Henry replied after Lavanini’s work at the next ruck, but Quins closed the half with another Quins score, centre Esterhuizen powering over from a close-range scrum. Smith added the extras with a drop-kick as the actin came to a close with this team 30-17 in front.
That lead reached points when Care and Smith combined to put Louis Lynagh in for a bonus-point score with both teams a man short following yellow cards for Hanro Liebenberg and Matt Symons.
Cole emerged for his landmark appearance just before Martin dotted down his first Premiership try.
The academy graduate combined with Taute to charge down a clearing kick and was there to score when the skipper gathered and offloaded ball just short of the tryline. Henry’s extras made it 37-24 with half an hour still to play.
After seven successful kicks, Smith pushed a penalty wide, and then replacement Tommy Reffell stepped in to win valuable ball on the floor as Quins attacked in the right-hand corner.
Henry drilled a clever kick down the right to pin Quins back, but a free-kick at the ensuing lineout gave the hosts a chance to clear their lines.
Dan Kelly’s first involvement was a clean take from Smith’s dangerous kick and, from the next phase of play, Tigers had a penalty to take play back upfield.
Evans stepped in to pick off ball in a promising Tigers attack but play remained in Quins territory as Kini Murimurivalu carried purposefully in midfield with the teams still 13 points apart.
But a penalty on halfway, kicked left-footed by Esterhuizen, took Quins back into dangerous territory before some big hits virtually on the tryline shut them out.
Van Poortvliet and Martin were heavily involved as Tigers got forward once more, and Murimurivalu threatened to wriggle free out of contact before play was stopped with a penalty verdict on the Quins 22. But, after going to the corner, Tigers were frustrated by the defence about 15 metres out.
When Dombrandt intercepted on halfway, Matias Moroni had to work hard in defence to get back and block Joe Marchant.
But a scrum penalty gave the hosts one more opportunity on their right. Although Tigers forced an error with their defensive work, the referee was already playing an advantage and play came back to the five-metre line.
Tigers, though, had one last chance with two penalties taking play 70 metres upfield. The lineout drive became another penalty as play stayed in the left-hand corner but, as the blue shirts nudged towards the whitewash, ball was wrapped up under the pile of bodies and the whistle signalled the end of the game.