Chris Ashton scored a first-half hat-trick as Leicester Tigers beat Bristol Bears 56-26 in Round 24 of the Gallagher Premiership season on Saturday.
In the first home game in the league since mid-March, the Mattioli Woods Welford Road crowd cheered a treble from wing Ashton in the opening 27 minutes, with the first taking him clear as Premiership Rugby’s all-time record tryscorer.
A score from Ben Youngs on an emotional day for his family gave Tigers a 15-point lead at half-time and a bonus point before further scores for Matias Moroni, Freddie Steward, Jasper Wiese and Harry Potter in a win which guarantees a home game in the semi-final stage.
Guy Porter, scorer of the last-minute winning try at Bristol earlier this season, returned from a ban to start at centre alongside Moroni, with Ashton also returning to the backline and Ellis Genge reunited with Dan Cole and Julian Montoya in the front row.
After Tom Youngs led out the team at the end of a week which included his retirement as a player, his colleagues received kick-off and they were on the scoresheet within five minutes with the record-breaking score for Ashton.
Tigers were playing with a penalty advantage after Freddie Steward led a kick chase and when play opened up to the right, Moroni chipped a kick into space in the corner and Ashton won the foot race for his 93rd Premiership score.
Ford was wide with his conversion attempt but landed a 40-metre penalty for an 8-0 lead on seven minutes.
Bristol replied immediately with a try from first-phase ball after a scrum on the Tigers 22, with Piers O’Conor setting up the chance for midfield partner Jack Bates who raced through to score on the left and Callum Sheedy’s conversion brought the gap back to a point with less than 10 minutes played.
Quick interplay involving Thacker, Harry Randall and Sheedy threatened again before the defence won a penalty on the floor.
Steward bundled team-mate Jasper Wiese out of the way to claim high ball and when Harry Potter chased down a clearing kick at the other end, the ball bounced up but Porter was just unable to take it in 15 metres short of the tryline.
O’Conor was used to make the hard yards from a defensive scrum as Bristol cleared their lines and they then won loose ball on the floor just as Tigers were building some momentum in possession.
Sheedy spilled a Ben Youngs kick with Ashton closing in, giving Tigers a scrum in an attacking position on the right touchline. The set-piece turned into a penalty for Ford to go to the corner.
Secure ball allowed Wiese to attack and when play went to the left, Ashton was denied a second try as he put a knee in touch as he reached out with Ioan Lloyd just doing enough to block his progress.
Tigers were playing with a penalty advantage and went back to the right-hand corner but missed their lineout and Bears cleared.
But the wing had to wait just two more minutes as Tigers attacked again and Genge linked with Ford and Steward to put him in for a second try. Ford added the kick from the left side for a 15-7 lead.
Tommy Reffell’s work in chasing down the Bristol defence almost brought another chance but when the visitors won turnover ball, the flanker was quickly back into defence to stop the progress of Sheedy.
Ashton’s hat-trick came on 27 minutes, with Tigers playing out from their own line with a knock-on advantage. Steward and Ben Youngs took play on and Ashton cleverly changed his support line to the outside to race clear. Ford added the conversion for a 22-7 lead.
Porter made an important tackle as Toby Fricker got on the end of an attack on the left, but Bears were awarded a penalty as they came back infield and played to the right-hand corner where the wing finally had the chance to get over the tryline.
Sheedy missed the conversion with Tigers 22-12 in front and that was quickly increased as Youngs got on the end of an attack on the left for the bonus-point score.
Sheedy was hurt in the build-up, making way for Tiff Eden as the game restarted, but Bristol were whistled for offside and play came back for a scrum on halfway, which led to another penalty when Lloyd dived off his feet at a ruck just five metres from his own tryline.
Tigers elected to scrummage, with Wiese and Liebenberg going close before a tackle off the ball brought another attacking penalty and a final play of the half.
Skipper Genge chose to scrum again, with the crowd playing their part too, but Wiese was this time whistled as he picked up and half-time came with Tigers 27-12 in front.
A spectacular aerial take from Potter got Tiger forward from kick-off to the second period and laid the platform for a fifth try.
Reffell chased down a clearing kick and, when the ball bounced towards Moroni, he spun out of an attempted tackle and ran in from 20 metres for the score which Ford converted.
Genge carried forcefully twice as Tigers pushed Bears back and, when they offended on the floor, Ford kicked the three-pointer as Nemani Nadolo was sent on to join the backline and Charlie Clare replaced Montoya in the pack.
Bristol showed their attacking threat down the right until Ford got his fingertips to a pass out wide, then Fricker spilled ball as they built from a scrum just outside the Tigers 22.
The next scrum brought a penalty award but Tigers played on, with Ashton’s kick putting Bears under pressure, with Moroni leading the charge. His work was rewarded with a penalty and Tigers tapped to keep up tempo, eventually finding Steward on the right and he picked his way to the tryline for the sixth try, with Ford adding the conversion before leaving the field with the score at 44-12.
Bristol still looked to keep ball alive in attack but, after playing through numerous phases, Wiese won ball on the floor. Then, when they built again, Ashton ripped ball and play was quickly taken back upfield.
Wiese was back on his feet to add a seventh try and take Tigers beyond 50 points, making the final push after Harry Wells had taken play almost up to the whitewash and Nadolo had released Ashton down the right.
The Freddie Burns conversion made it 51-12 and Tigers almost added to it instantly but Clare was held up over the line at the back of a lineout.
Reffell raced 40 metres to end a break by Lloyd in front of the dugouts and Steward prevented further progress on the other side of the pitch before Bristol built again and this time, hooker Thacker wriggled out of a tackle to run in next to the posts for their third try of the afternoon. Eden added the conversion.
But within 60 seconds, Potter sliced through the Bears defence on their 22 to run in and beat Lloyd on the right for an eighth try.
Another followed at the other end, with O’Conor drawing the tacklers to release his colleagues on the left and Chris Vui made the final metres to the line for their fourth try of the day and Eden’s conversion made it 56-26 with the final points of the afternoon.
Steward made a last-ditch tackle as O’Conor broke through the middle but, when Bears were given a penalty, the lineout was adjudged not straight and the game ended with a home scrum.