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.
THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT
Thank you to the 20,119 supporters who joined us at Welford Road and to all of you who followed along at home using Matchday Live.
We'll see you again for the final home game of the season on Saturday, May 18 (4.00pm) for our Round 22 clash with Bath Rugby.
FULL TIME | 20-23
Tigers fall short in the final play of the game, and Karl Dickson blows for full time.
FINAL PLAY OF THE GAME
Crane scoops the ball out the back of the Bristol scrum, but the ball is knocked on into touch by one of his teammates so White will feed into the lineout on halfway in the final play of the game.
KNOCK ON ON THE FLOOR
Kerr's throw finds his man, and Tigers look to batter the door down on the away 22. The momentum is broken by a knock on on the floor, and Bristol have a scrum with 45 seconds remaniing.
IN AT THE SIDE
Jordan Crane is clearly in at the side as he disrupts the Leicester breakdown, and Thacker rushes in to try and steal the ball after he thinks White has tapped it. He hadn't, so Ford nudges it into touch on the Bears 22.
TRIO OF TIGERS CHANGES
Facundo Gigena, Joe Heyes and - to a roar from the crowd - Telusa Veainu join the Tigers fray, in place of Ellis Genge, Dan Cole and debutant Clayton Blommetjies.
Madigan's conversion puts Bristol three points ahead with just under five minutes to go.
BEARS MAUL OVER
Chris Vui claims the throw, and the Bears maul rumbles over the line. Harry Thacker is the scorer.
PENALTY AT THE THROW
The Tigers pack give away a penalty at the first lineout, so Bristol will have another throw...
THROUGH THE MARK
Bristol win a scrum penalty on the Leicester five-metre line, after the Tigers pack hit through the mark. Madigan puts the ball into the dorner for a Bears lineout.
George Ford hares after a Bristol kick and secures possession five metres from his own line.
PAUSE FOR TREATMENT
We'll pause for treatment on both sides of the ball after a Tigers knock on on halfway.
WHITE FOR HARRISON
Sam Harrison is replaced by Ben White at scrum-half for Leicester.
FORD SPLITS THE UPRIGHTS
Ford adds another penalty to his tally, to give Tigers a four-point lead at 20-16 with 10 minutes to play.
We finally get the scrum - after a couple of resets - and it's another penalty won by the Tigers pack. Boris will be pleased...
WELLS TAKES KITCH'S PLACE
Graham Kitchener takes the applause from the home supporters as he is replaced by Harry Wells.
Another Bristol mistake, as full-back Mat Protheroe spills the ball in front of the Breedon Terrace. The scrum goes down on the Bears' side, but Tigers come away with it. There's a clash of heads at the next ruck as Jordan Crane and Siale Piutau go into each other, but they both remain on the field for now.
The Bears look to put the ball through hands again, but Siale Piutau can't quite keep a hand to it, before John Afoa knocks on. Leicester play the advantage, and Olowofela chases the ball before it bobbles into touch inside the Bristol half.
CHANGE AT 10
Ian Madigan replaces Bristol fly-half Callum Sheedy.
MIKE FOR MIKE
Mike Williams is on, in place of Mike Fitzgerald.
INTO THE 22
Guy Thompson trucks the ball up into the Bristol 22, but just a phase later the ball is knocked on off a Leicester knee. Sheedy kicks to touch to ease the pressure.
Former Tigers man Jordan Crane replaces Steven Luatua.
CROUCH, BIND, SET
Tigers win a penalty just inside their own half when Dan Cole forces James Lay to ground.
CHANGES ON THE HOUR
Jake Kerr and Sam Aspland-Robinson are both onto the field in place of Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Smith. Matt Toomua returns from his yellow card to return Tigers to 15 men.
After a check with the TMO, Dan Thomas' try is awarded, though Sheedy misses the kick. Tigers still lead 17-16.
THROUGH THE HANDS
Bristol put the ball through hands and think they're over through flanker Dan Thomas, but we'll go to the TMO to see if there was a foot in touch in the build up...
SMITH JOINS THE FRAY
George Smith replaces Nick Haining in the Bristol back row.
Ford nudges the ball through the uprights and Leicester lead 17 points to 11 with almost an hour gone.
The noise levels rise at Welford Road as Jonny May spots a gap on the left-hand side, but Bristol cover and he is bundled into touch. We'll come back for a tackle in the air, and Ford has another kick at goal.
Ford makes great ground with the kick - even if the Breedon Terrace thinks the touch judge should be closer to the corner flag - and Taf finds his man at the throw.
TAP AND GO
Randall taps and goes with his first touch of the ball after Tigers give away a penalty on the floor. But his support doesn't get to him in time, and Leicester win the ball back just inside their own half.
BRISTOL SWAP SCRUM-HALVES
Harry Randall is onto the field in place of Andy Uren.
'CHECK WITH KITT-Y'
Tigers think they've ripped the ball on their own line, but there's slight confusion over how the ball then gets over the deadball line. Dickson checks with TMO Rowan Kitt and awards Tigers a 22 dropout.
YELLOW CARD FOR TOOMUA
Matt Toomua is sent to the bin for cynically slowing the ball at a breakdown on his own line.
THREE MORE POINTS
...and it's through! Tigers pull ahead once more via George Ford's boot, score now 14-11.
NOT ROLLING AWAY
Sam Harrison keeps the ball in the breakdown long enough for Tigers to win a penalty for a Bristol player not rolling away. Ford points to the posts...
Jake Woolmore is replaced by James Lay in the Bristol front row.
WARNING AT THE RUCK
Dickson warns Guy Thompson at a ruck on the far side, but Kalamafoni needs no such advice - he's over the ball at the next ruck, and wins the penalty for Tigers.
The decision is NO TRY after obstruction from Bears loosehead Jake Woolmore in the build-up. Ford kicks to touch for a lineout well into the Bristol half.
POTENTIAL BEARS TRY
Bristol think they're over, but Karl Dickson has turned to his TMO to look for possible obstruction and then check the grounding.
Bristol win the penalty at an early scrum, and are now attacking on the fringes of the home 22.
SECOND HALF STARTS
Callum Sheedy gets the second half underway at Welford Road, Tigers now attacking towards the Mattioli Woods Stand.
HALF TIME | 11-11
All square at the break at Welford Road, after what has been a to-and-fro first half.
Dickson has another peep on the whistle, this time for a Tigers offside. But Leicester steal the lineout, and that'll be the final play of the half.
Genge is pinged for dangerous play at a ruck, with Dickson claiming the ball was already out.
Tigers come away with the ball from the lineout, and Blommetjies breaks down the left before the ball dribbles into touch.
Bristol work the ball to the centre of the field and fly-half Sheedy spots a gap to cross the whitewash. He can't convert his score, though, so we're level again at 11-11.
DARTS FROM TAF
Bristol work the ball into the Tigers 22 from the restart, and Tigers have a lineout in their right-hand corner. Tatafu Polota-Nau finds Mike Fitzgerald with his throw, and Leicester get it clear.
Siale Piutau replaces Sam Bedlow in the Bristol midfield.
A gust of wind takes Ford's kick wide across the face of the posts, but Tigers still lead 11-6.
OLOWOFELA DOTS DOWN
Tigers pull Bristol across the field before Jordan Olowofela spots an overlap on his left-hand side, and gallops in for the first try of the match. That's his first score for 18 games for the young man.
WOBBLE IN MIDFIELD
Graham Kitchener takes the lineout, but the ball is lost in midfield and we're back on halfway before Tigers win it back again via Guy Thompson.
Olowofela is taken high on his second burst down the left-hand touchline, and Ford kicks to the corner once again. The Tigers pack smell a score, clearly...
CLAYTON UNDER THE HIGH BALL
Blommetjies takes a high ball at full tilt and looks to smash the Bristol line. They hold strong initially, but the ball is recycled and Olowofela spots a half gap on the left.
Leicester are penalised for illegally disrupting a Bears maul, and this time Sheedy nails the kick to level us up again, 6-6.
The backs look to give their forward packs a bit of a rest by engaging in a spot of kick tennis. First Blommetjies and then Olowofela field the high ball, before Ford kicks to touch for a Bristol lineout.
ANOTHER THREE FOR FORD
Ford kicks three more after Bristol give away a penalty at scrum time to make the score 6-3 at Welford Road.
Tigers take the lineout on the Bears 22, but the ball evades both lifters and bounces off the back. Bristol pick up, but knock on a phase later and the home side will have a scrum well into the final quarter of the pitch.
Dickson awards the advantage from the scrum, but Harrison digs the ball out for Jonny May on the right wing. He's stopped, so we'll come back for the original offence. Ford kicks to the corner.
ANOTHER KNOCK ON
Another knock on...but this time it's from Bristol. We'll scrum again, with Sam Harrison to make the feed.
SHEEDY POINTS TO POSTS
Bristol win a penalty at the scrum, and Sheedy points to the posts. He's almost got the distance, but his kick at goal just tails off to the left.
Another Leicester knock on, this time on the far side, right on halfway. We'll scrum down again.
CONFUSION AT THE LINEOUT
Bristol call a five-man lineout...with four men in the lineout. Referee Karl Dickson allows John Afoa to join the line, but Harry Thacker's throw goes astray and is pounced on by Tatafu Polota-Nau. Nice one.
TOOMUA ON THE CHARGE
Tigers ball, and inside centre Matt Toomua floats through a gap in the Bristol line. Leicester are into the visitors' 22, but Polota-Nau is adjudged to have gone off his feet, and the Bears release the pressure.
BEARS BITE BACK
Callum Sheedy sends a penalty kick through the uprights to level the scores at Welford Road, 3-3.
'Green, green, green' is the message from assistant referee Hamish Smales at scrum time, and Bristol win a penalty in front of the sticks.
KNOCK ON AND SCRUM
We'll have a first scrum of the game after a knock-on in front of the Tigers posts. Bristol scrum-half Andy Uren feeds the ball...
TIGERS HOLD STRONG
The Bears look to make the most of an overlap on this near touchline, but the final pass doesn't quite stick. They shift the ball to the left and then back to the right, but the Tigers line holds strong.
FIRST BLOOD TO TIGERS
Ford lands a penalty goal in blustery conditions to put Tigers three points ahead with four minutes gone in this match.
POWER FROM ELLIS
The home side work the ball up the pitch, carry by carry, metre by metre, before Ellis Genge uses a powerful leg drive - with help from Jordan Olowofela and Matt Smith - to make 10 metres in one carry. Bristol are pinged on the floor, and George Ford will have a kick at goal.
EARLY TIGERS POSSESSION
Tigers hitting the ball up early in this first half. Matt Smith makes a half break in front of the Breedon Terrace, and then comes back for more a couple of phases later to put Bristol centre Piers O'Conor onto his backside.
KICK OFF AT WELFORD ROAD
George Ford puts boot to ball and we're underway at Welford Road.
CAUGHT ON CAMERA
Both teams have disappeared up the Breedon Stand tunnel after completing their final warm-ups. Kick off from Welford Road just moments away...
Gusty winds have been battering Welford Road all morning, and there’s no sign of the breeze abating before kick off. There’s a forecast of light rain with temperatures not expected to rise above 8C.
BAKEWELL PREVIEWS BRISTOL THREAT
One man that knows the Bears’ threat better than most is former Bristol forwards coach – and current Leicester pack man – Mark Bakewell, who swapped the West Country for Oval Park in February 2018.
“Their intent to attack is their biggest threat with ability to find space in opposition defensive patterns poses the biggest threat,” he told LeicesterTigers.com. “Consistency and cohesion is massive.”
You can read the Australian’s full match preview here.
CONFIRMED TEAM NEWS
Recent arrival Clayton Blommetjies makes his club debut at full-back in one of four changes to the starting XV that defeated Newcastle Falcons last time out in this competition.
Sione Kalamafoni, Matt Smith and Tatafu Polota-Nau all start, while Telusa Veainu is in line for his first Premiership Rugby appearance in 222 days after being named on the bench.
Guy Thompson and Matt Toomua shift to openside flanker and inside centre respectively as head coach Geordan Murphy shuffles the rest of his matchday squad.
Get up to speed with full team news here (or scroll down on this page).
BIG MATCH PREVIEW
Just three points and one place separate Tigers from ninth-placed Bristol in the Gallagher Premiership table ahead of today’s match.
Since a 32-14 defeat on Tigers turf back in April 2008, the Bears have been to Welford Road only once, losing 50-17 in a Premiership fixture during February 2017.
Pat Lam’s men were victorious in the last meeting between the two sides – 41-10 at Ashton Gate back in December – and Tigers will look to avenge that Round 9 defeat this afternoon.
Read our big match preview here (or scroll down on this page).
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