Leicester Tigers kicked off a new year with a 36-31 win over Bath Rugby at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Sunday in Round 5 of the Gallagher Premiership season.
A shock early try gave Bath a perfect start and they doubled the around the quarter-hour with a fine individual score from Ben Spencer to give Tigers an uphill task in the opening game of a new year.
But two penalties from Ford and then a clinical finish from Steward gave Tigers fresh hope and a long-range kick brought the half to a close with the Bath lead cut to 16-17.
Both clubs returned from Covid-enforced breaks, with Tigers having the trip to Newcastle cancelled last weekend and Bath unable to play their last two games – against La Rochelle in Europe and London Irish in the Premiership – on a bright January afternoon in the 201st meeting of old rivals.
The second half began with a try from Wells to put Tigers ahead for the first time at 23-17 and scores were level at 26-26 entering the final quarter of an enthralling game before Henderson stretched out to score from close range and provide another lead.
But Bath were still not done, adding a third try of their own before Tigers managed to seal the points to move up to seventh in the table.
Tigers head coach Steve Borthwick was among the absentees as he continued isolating at home, but the team did feature first starts of the season for England trio George Ford, Ellis Genge and Ben Youngs as well as the re-appearance of teenager George Martin after his recovery from injury.
Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Will Stuart and Sam Underhill all made their return for Bath after the Autumn Nations Cup as they hunted a fifth successive league win over Tigers.
They showed their ambition to keep ball alive shortly after kick-off and got on the scoreboard in bizarre circumstances after just two minutes thanks to prop Ben Obano.
Tigers safely gathered a lineout inside their own 22 but, as a pod of forwards broke forward, the ball had somehow found its way into the hands of Josh McNally behind them. He was tackled just short of the line, but Obano was able to drive over and Rhys Priestland added the conversion.
Taulupe Faletau left the field temporarily after colliding with Tigers full-back Steward, and moments later Watson spilled a high kick but, after a big push at the scrum brought a penalty, Ford pushed his kick wide.
Jasper Wiese was yellow-carded on 14 minutes as he tackled Watson high and, although they missed touch with their penalty down the left, the escape was only momentary as scrum-half Spencer saw a gap on halfway, kicked ahead and regathered next to the posts to score. Priestland’s kick made it 14-0 to the visitors with 16 minutes played.
A scrum penalty gave Ford a second sight of the posts and he opened his account from wide on the right after 23 minutes.
Two more scrums brought two more penalties and, after Ford kicked to the right, the lineout allowed Wiese to carry and, when Sam Underhill was penalised at the ruck, the fly-half added another three-pointer.
A penalty for offside brought to an end a promising Leicester spell in Bath territory but, after the visitors threatened with ball in hand again, Dan Cole’s work in defence brought a whistle in his favour.
Matt Scott almost picked off a pass in the Bath backline midway inside their half but, after the call of the television match official, a penalty was awarded against him. The centre recovered to make an important tackle in midfield following the set-piece and Bath knocked-on as they attempted to play out wide.
Tigers then created a well-worked score for Steward following impressive carries from Nemani Nadolo on the left and then Genge through the middle, allowing the forwards to pick up momentum – and a couple of penalty advantages – before Ford popped a pass for the full-back to score. The conversion made it 13-14 with less than five minutes left in the opening half.
Bath wanted a response before the break but, after getting into a promising position, Hanro Liebenberg swooped on ball to win a turnover and Ford hammered upfield.
With the clock ticking down, Tigers used a lineout to build some attacking phases but, when Bath hacked clear and Steward dived on the ball in front of the posts, the whistle went against the defence and Priestland kicked the points.
From the restart, both teams kept playing, with Tigers breaking out after an error from Bath at their own lineout and the half ended with a penalty award in front of the dug-outs which Ford landed with an immaculate long-range kick to bring Tigers to within a point.
And the hosts went in front for the first time just moments into the second half, with Steward claiming a long kick from Ford, and Youngs taking play to the left where Nadolo came into a threatening position, dragging in defenders before offloading to Wells who carried the momentum through the final tacklers to score. Ford added another perfect kick to make it 23-17.
A Priestland kick after Tigers had collapsed a maul added three points to the Bath total, but Ford responded on 50 minutes.
The restart almost brought another bizarre moment when Faletau deflected it away from Wiese with his head and Kobus van Wyk had to step in to make a big tackle and force a knock-on.
Another penalty from Priestland meant three points separated teams on 55 minutes before a 50-metre carry through the heart of the Bath defence from Wiese had the visitors scrambling back. After a number of phases, Ford called for a drop goal but kicked wide.
Watson miss-judged a kick on the edge of his own 22 but Bath escaped when Nadolo was penalised for a second movement after being tackled.
Tigers showed powerful defence when Watson was taken to the floor and bodies arrived to drive him backwards, but stolen ball was then spilled and play began with a Bath scrum.
Steward was just as he fielded a dangerous chip through and collided with colleague Jaco Taute. But play went back for a Bath penalty as Kini Murimurivalu replaced the South African centre and Priestland levelled the scores at 26-26.
Murimurivalu was immediately into the action, attacking down the right after a superb offload from Van Wyk, and another Wiese carry which ended with fellow replacement Cameron Henderson reaching over to score with his first touch of the ball. Ford’s extras from wide on the right made it 33-26.
Van Wyk then combined with Jack Van Poortvliet down the right touchline but his chip ahead was just too far for the scrum-half to catch as Bath dotted down.
The pace of the game continued, with play swinging first one way and then the other, and when Faletau was penalised on the floor trying to scoop up loose ball, Ford finally provided the daylight of a 10-point lead on the scoreboard with the kick and just six minutes left on the clock.
Henderson was penalised at the restart, Bath taking play up the left and playing with advantage for two more offences until Cameron Redpath wriggled over the line for Bath’s third try.
Josh Matavesi screwed his conversion attempt wide with Tigers five points in front and three minutes left in the game.
Tigers created position for a fourth score from a high kick by Ford but were eventually penalised in possession just a metre out before regaining possession to wind down the clock on a hard-earned victory.