Leicester Tigers were beaten 26-23 by top-of-the-table Bristol Bears who finished the game pinned on their own tryline in a controversial conclusion to proceedings at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday.
Tigers had a succession of set-piece penalties just five metres from the tryline in the closing moments as Bristol lost a prop to a yellow card and there had to be a meeting of the officials and management to determine how many players they could have left on the field before the game ended with the defence intact.
Bristol had led 14-6 at half-time with enterprising tries from Semi Radradra and Harry Randall before the biggest cheer of the afternoon – in the first home game played in front of a crowd for 15 months – greeted a score from Hanro Liebenberg and conversion by Johnny McPhillips which put Steve Borthwick’s men in front at 16-14 after the break.
Bears, though, responded with two tries in three minutes as they chased a win that would confirm a home semi-final and stretch their lead at the top of the table.
Tigers fought back again with Julian Montoya steering a forward drive over the tryline to make it 23-26 and set up the finale.
Sixth-placed Tigers had recorded successive victories over Harlequins and Worcester Warriors, going into the game with just one home defeat since the end of January. But Bristol have lost just twice in the Gallagher Premiership since Round 8 in February as they chased a home semi-final.
With a crowd of reduced-capacity crowd of 6,400 admitted for the first time since as win over Worcester in February 2020 due to Covid restrictions, Tigers ran out to welcoming cheers on a sweltering afternoon and when fly-half McPhillips got the game started, kicking towards the Mattioli Woods Stand end, cries of ‘Tigers Tigers’ rang around the stadium.
Bristol slapped the kick-off forward on their 22, and Ben Youngs and Hanro Liebenberg threatened an immediate breakthrough. But, with advantage over, and space opening on the right, ball was knocked-on just five metres from the tryline.
The first scrum ended with a penalty for Bristol who had withdrawn Kyle Sinckler before kick-off and brought the experienced John Afoa into the front row. But they missed their lineout and back-rower Martin quickly got Tigers forward again until a penalty award at the breakdown allowed McPhillips to kick the opening points.
Bristol gained some attacking impetus from the restart, with Nathan Hughes making an impact in possession before Tigers closed out the threat.
Moments later, when Max Malins offloaded loosely over his head on the left, Tigers latched on to loose ball and booted upfield where Randall fielded just 10 metres from his tryline and was immediately bundled into touch by the chasing Matt Scott.
Potter pulled up in the chase and was led off, with Nemani Nadolo taking over on the wing.
A break from Henry Purdy almost provided a two-on-one chance for Bears in attack before Tigers raced back to cover and a string of passes provided space for Semi Radradra and Piers O’Conor to combine on the left before losing control of the ball.
After being pinned back early, on the Bears started to build their attacking game, with Siale Piutau used as an initial ball-carrier, and they opened their account with a length-of-the field try, started by Malins and finished by Radradra after Piutau’s decisive break and long pass out to his left. Callum Sheedy made it 7-3 to the visitors with the conversion.
Freddie Steward felt the physical force of Radradra upfield moments later, but still brought his man down before a counter-attack saw Ellis Genge in possession in the centre of the field, only to be called back for a knock-on as he offloaded to Matias Moroni. It was decision neither player agreed with and met with disapproval from the home crowd too.
A second big hit on Hughes from Martin kept Bristol in their own 22, but when Tigers did build some phases of possession, Purdy stepped in to intercept and the chance was gone.
Genge enjoyed a penalty award in his favour as Afoa brought a scrum down on the left, but Bears defended well from the lineout and then again as the hard-working Scott and Ben Youngs linked nicely 30 metres out.
Bears lost Piutau to a head injury check as Liebenberg chased down a break on their right, then some hard work in possession brought a penalty which McPhillips landed from 40 metres to pull Tigers to within a point of the visitors.
It stayed that way for just one minute, however, as Bears scrum-half Randall broke from a tap penalty 30 metres out and beat the final defender before dotting down next to the posts. The conversion made it 14-6 in Bears’ favour just before half-time.
Piutau returned as Sheedy got the second half started and Julian Montoya made his comeback from injury as a replacement for skipper Tom Youngs.
Nadolo’s work in contact earned a Tigers penalty which McPhillips pushed to touch on the left, but Chris Vui got up early to pick off the lineout.
Tigers only had to wait another couple of minutes, though, for the opening points of the second half as McPhillips landed his third kick after Harry Wells had won a penalty on the floor to make it 9-14.
Liebenberg’s anticipation won back ball on the Tigers left and, although Moroni had no space to work with in support, they still had lineout ball as a platform but again lost possession at the set-piece.
Ben Youngs reacted to a break by Purdy as he raced to bouncing ball near his own line and was awarded a penalty when as he received a push in the back trying to make the catch.
A scrum penalty on the 10-metre line brought a big response from the home crowd but McPhillips was just off-target with the kick on 51 minutes.
History-maker Richard Wigglesworth replaced Youngs at the restart to become the first man to make 300 appearances in Premiership Rugby.
Nadolo made a timely intercept as Bears threatened a counter-attack and his team-mates made the most of it, recycling quickly for McPhillips to test the defence and find Liebenbger in the wide channel on the right where he ran in to score and level the scores at 14-14.
McPhillips stayed calm to add a conversion from the right to put Tigers 16-14 in front.
Joe Heyes joined the forward pack as Wigglesworth cleared Tigers lines at the restart, but Bristol provided an instant response with two more tries to claim a bonus point just short of the hour.
First, work at a lineout provided an opportunity for Malins to break through a hole near halfway and run free to score. Then an interception as Tigers looked to play out wide gave Radradra the chance to latch on to a Piers O’Conor offload to score in the right-hand corner. Sheedy’s conversion of that try provided a 10-point lead at 26-16.
Liebenberg’s work in defence shut out another attack and Tigers quickly got upfield, turning down a shot at the posts to go to the corner where Kerr was yellow carded defending the set-piece.
Tigers made the most of the opportunity, too, Tomas Lavanini driving a maul which ended with fellow Argentina international Montoya scoring his fourth try in just five appearances for the club.
McPhillips nailed the conversion kick from wide on the right to pull the game back to 23-26 with 67 minutes gone on the clock.
A penalty gave Bristol a chance to threaten again but, after Murimurivalu had twice tried to win ball on the floor, fellow Fijian Nadolo got his considerable frame over the breakdown to win turnover ball just a couple of metres from his own tryline.
When a scrum penalty followed, the crowd’s energy rose again and the whistle went in Tigers’ favour twice more as they played from the set-piece on the left, and again when they pushed for the tryline.
Bristol were back up to 15 men as Tigers elected for a five-metre scrum on the left and went to do the same again after being awarded a free-kick.
Before the ball left Wigglesworth’s hands at the feed, the whistle went yet again and Tigers stayed there for another set-piece.
Referee Tempest raised his arm again as Tigers applied the pressure and with the clock on zero, and although they reached the tryline, the verdict was no try but yet another penalty for a penalty collapse.
When a yellow card followed, Bristol lost their tighthead prop and the officials had to consult the regulations on the touchline to determine a course of action. The question on the Bristl bench was whether original prop Afoa could come back on.
The ruling was that Bears had to take off an extra player, with Sheedy heading to the dugout and Afoa back in the front row.
As the scrum set for one final push, ball rolled loose and Bears kicked into touch to bring the final whistle, though it took some time for the officials to separate the players with emotions running high.