Leicester Tigers were beaten 20-23 by Bristol Bears at Welford Road on Saturday afternoon but the consolation losing point created a nine-point gap over the bottom of the table with two games remaining.
A try from Jordan Olowofela, after the teams had exchanged early penalties, gave Tigers the lead at 11-6. But Bristol drew level shortly before half-time with a Callum Sheedy try on a blustery, cold afternoon.
There was little to divide the teams after the break, with Ford kicking a couple of penalties before the Bears responded with a try to cut the gap to 17-16 as Tigers lost Matt Toomua to a yellow card. And it was Leicester old boy Harry Thacker who added the Bears' third try from close range as they decisively edged in front with just five minutes left to play in this Gallagher Premiership Round 20 clash.
Bristol stretched their advantage over Leicester to six points, with 44 to 39. Worcester Warriors, who host Gloucester on Sunday, are in 11th place on 37 with Newcastle Falcons on 30 after their home defeat by Northampton on Friday evening.
Tigers head coach Geordan Murphy gave a debut to full-back Clayton Blommetjies following his hat-trick in the Premiership Shield at Easter and brought Sione Kalamafoni into the back row after a three-match ban. Telusa Veainu, one of the tryscorers in a 50-17 win over Bristol on their last visit to Leicester in 2017, was included in the squad for the first time since October on his return from a foot injury. He made his first Premiership appearance since Round 3 as a late replacement.
Tigers started the game strongly, keeping ball in hand for the opening phases as they took play 50 metres upfield in a series of carries before gaining a penalty award on the edge of the Bristol 22. Ford, with scrum-half Sam Harrison having to hold the ball still on the tee in the wind, struck it firmly for a 3-0 lead on five minutes.
The Bears created their first opening as they found extra men out wide on the right but the offload from No8 Nick Haining went behind the supporting players and Tigers shut out the chance.
Bristol, though, then retained possession for several minutes, forcing defenders into tackles until Tigers knocked-on in contact 10 metres in front of the posts. And when the whistle went in Bristol’s favour at the scrum, fly-half Callum Sheedy levelled the scores with a straight-forward kick.
A midfield break from Matt Toomua provided some momentum for Tigers, but they were then penalised at the breakdown just as they were gaining territory.
Tigers also fell foul of the whistle at a scrum near the touchline on halfway but when Sam Bedlow called for the tee he failed to connect cleanly and the ball barely made crossbar height as it fell wide.
The strong wind was making it difficult to find a rhythm in the game and, after a scrum penalty Ford kicked Tigers into a 6-3 lead, Sheedy levelled the scores again when Guy Thompson was penalised for not releasing in the tackle just 20 metres out.
A high tackle on Olowofela on the left wing brought another penalty and Ford took play into the corner. But, after securing lineout possession, Tigers were robbed of ball 15 metres out and had to start again.
This time, they made sure as Jonny May and Thompson combined with some slick handling to put Olowofela clear and he scored in the left corner. Ford was unable to add a tricky conversion as the wind pushed his kick wide with Tigers five points in front.
Then Bristol, in their very next attack, claimed their first try as Sheedy squirmed away from two attempted tackles to score near the posts. But the fly-half pushed his kick just wide with the scores level at 11-11.
The visitors started the second half with what they thought was a precious try, with Tom Pincus going over on the right. But referee Karl Dickson spotted and checked an obstruction in the build-up and the try was crossed out.
Bristol continued to play by building phases across the field but strong work on the floor from Kalamafoni won a penalty for Tigers and Ford pushed play upfield. When Tigers looked to play out from the lineout, Bristol were blown again and Ford pointed to the posts. His kick made it 14-11 in favour of the home side.
Tellingly, Tigers lost the restart as the kick was held up on the wind and Siale Piutau claimed possession to set the visitors on the attack. And, when they neared the tryline, Toomua was yellow-carded as he contested the ball off his feet.
Tigers were forced on to the defensive, surviving when Bristol lost possession in attack and then seeing Thompson, just seconds after being penalised for one attempted turnover, earn a superb steal as they battled on with a man short.
Another penalty against Bristol allowed Ford to kick for goal and his fourth successful kick made it 17-11 after 55 minutes.
But the Bears came straight back and scored through flanker Dan Thomas as Steve Luatua and Pincus combined on their right flank, creating extra numbers across the field where Thomas dotted down. Sheedy’s kick was another victim of the swirling wind as the conversion blew wide of the posts.
Toomua returned from the sin-bin shortly afterwards with Tigers still in front at 17-16 and Crane made his Welford Road return from the Bears bench.
The visitors expected better reward as they kept ball in hand in rival territory but then found themselves 20-16 behind when they offended at a scrum on their 10-metre line and Ford added the three-pointer.
The fly-half was then in action at the other end, winning the race to a kick by Mat Protheroe but being back over his own tryline, giving Bears a close-range scrum.
Play stayed in that area of the pitch with a couple of penalties and, at the second time of asking, the whole Bears pack gathered to drive to the line and it was Thacker who emerged from the pile of bodies to edge them in front. Ian Madigan’s conversion made it 20-23 with four minutes left on the clock.
Veainu emerged from the bench at the kick-off and was quickly on to the ball as Tigers looked for one last chance. It came when Crane was penalised at a ruck on halfway with two minutes remaining but, after building some impetus on the ball in the Bears half, ball was lost in contact and the visitors took their opportunity to close out victory.