Leicester Tigers wingers Nick Malouf and Jonny May scored the tries as Leicester Tigers produced their best performance of the season to date to beat Exeter Chiefs 20-13.
Malouf stepped off his wing to finish Matt Toomua’s exquisite pass in the first half of a ding-dong battle with the defending Aviva Premiership champions at Welford Road.
It gave Tigers a 10-3 lead at the break, but they came under huge pressure in the second half after conceding a penalty try for a deliberate knock-on by Telusa Veainu, for which the full-back was sent to the sin-bin.
But Tigers were tencious in defence and made the most of their opportunities, not least when May produced another brilliant finish to punish Exeter for stopping at a knock-on, to score his fifth try in five games for the Tigers.
George Ford marshalled the troops expertly in wet conditions, and enjoyed a 100 per cent record from the tee with two conversions and a penalty and a drop goal, to steer Tigers to their third successive league win.
The win was all the more impressive given the disruption to the team before kick-off as Tigers were forced into late changes to their front-row resources. Logovi’i Mulipola was withdrawn with a neck injury and was replaced on the bench by Chris Baumann, while Ellis Genge suffered a back spasm in the warm-up, Greg Bateman started with Kyle Traynor going onto the bench.
In other team news, forward duo George McGuigan and Brendon O’Connor returned from injury to take their place on the bench. McGuigan was included in an Aviva Premiership matchday 23 for the first time this season after suffering a hand injury during pre-season. He replaced Harry Thacker.
Luke Hamilton started in the back row in place of Dominic Ryan with O’Connor, who had recovered from a hamstring injury, taking his place on the bench.
The team changes unsettled Tigers in the opening moments and it was Exeter who were first to show. The visitors enjoyed early possession in the Tigers half and took a fifth-minute lead through Gareth Steenson’s penalty after Tigers hands in a ruck.
Indeed, Exeter enjoyed much of the possession in the opening 10 minutes but Tigers defended resolutely, typified by Nick Malouf’s tackle on Lachie Turner that forced a knock-on from the Chiefs wing.
There was more good work from Mike Williams, who latched onto Olly Woodburn to win the holding-on penalty on the edge of the 22 and George Ford kicked Leicester into the Exeter half for the first time.
Wells was excellent on the floor, turning over possession on his 22. But, as the rain came down at Welford Road, Tigers were unable to capitalise as Veainu knocked on under pressure.
Tigers had to defend with their lives again as Exeter piled forward inside their 22 and forced the knock-on from Jack Yeandle. Ford kicked long and Phil Dollman came under pressure from Jonny May and Matt Smith, with Tom Youngs eventually stealing possession. Toomua’s angled kick to the corner beat Veainu and Turner into touch.
Play came back for the TMO to look at an incident at a ruck involving Julian Salvi, and the former Tigers back-rower was yellow-carded for not using his arms at a clear-out.
In signalled a shift in momentum in the game. And with Welford Road in full voice, Veainu stepped past Mitch Lees to get Leicester on the attack for the first time in the game. Tigers piled forward, went through the phases in the Chiefs 22 and drove Ford over the line, but the fly-half was held up.
At the resulting scrum, Sione Kalamafoni drove up to the line but was stopped just short. But Tigers remained patient, and eventually Toomua picked out Malouf’s run with a delightful pass that allowed that allowed the winger to step past Turner and over for the score.
Ford landed a testing conversion to put Tigers 7-3 ahead 14 minutes before half-time.
Tigers showed their attacking intent when Matt Smith took a quick lineout inside his 22. May stepped out of danger and set up the ruck for Ben Youngs to clear. There was a nervy moment as Malouf took out Dollman in the air, but referee Thomas Foley gave a penalty only.
Tigers were on top now, as Salvi returned from his sin-bin period, and they pegged Chiefs back towards their own 22 with some solid carrying and breakdown work. And they made the position pay with Ford sitting back to land a drop goal to move them seven points ahead with half-time approaching.
Welford Road was on its feet again moments later to acclaim a wonderful tackle by Toomua on Yeandle that drove the Exeter captain back five metres and also brought the holding-on penalty, as Tigers led 10-3 at the break.
Ben Youngs showed his experience in the opening stages of the second half when he spotted Woodburn upfield and angled a kick into touch deep in the Exeter 22. It set the template for Tigers in the opening stages of the second period, with the back three and half-backs kicking for territory in wet conditions.
And when Exeter attempted to counterattack more brilliant work by Wells won the holding-on penalty against Turner.
When Ben Moon was pinged for a no-arms tackle on Kalamafoni, Tigers had the advantage and Ben Youngs attacked down the narrow side. His pass went forward, with the Tigers fans in the Holland & Barrett Stand claiming it was touched by an Exeter hand, and Veainu swept on the loose ball to cross the line.
But referee Foley deemed it was a knock-on and came back for the penalty. Ford kept his cool to land his kick from 45m to nudge Leicester 13-3 ahead.
Exeter had an immediate chance to respond with Steenson banging a penalty deep into the Tigers 22. But they spilled the lineout and Kalamafoni took Tigers up to the 22 for Ford to clear.
The Chiefs continued to press and won a scrum penalty that Steenson put into the right-hand corner. They won another penalty as Tigers went off their feet, and with the advantage they worked on overlap on the left. Veainu stuck out his hand in an to attempt the intercept but knocked-on with only Turner outside him.
Referee Foley consulted his TMO before he awarded the penalty try and sent Veainu to the bin. The seven-point score cut Leicester’s lead to 13-10.
Exeter looked to make the extra man count by going to the corner with a kickable penalty. But Lees spilled the ball and again Kalamafoni picked up possession for Ben Youngs to find touch.
At the next Exeter attack, man-of-the-match Kalamafoni overturned possession and Bateman booted play deep into the Exeter 22. Woodburn, with May racing after him, got back to mop up and bought enough time for his teammates to get around him and clear.
It sparked a momentum shift back towards the Tigers. Dollman failed to deal with Ford’s up-and-under and the Exeter players seemed to stop for the knock-on. Not so Tigers, and Ben Youngs switched play to the left flank where May powered past Woodburn and used the slick pitch to slide in for his fifth try in Leicester colours.
Veainu returned to the field before the conversion. And Ford landed his kick from wide on the left to give Leicester a 20-10 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
Tigers made a mess of the restart but replacements Sam Harrison and Brendon O’Connor showed wonderful scavaging skills to strip Don Armand of the ball on the 22. Harrison rejoined the play to kick up to halfway.
Exeter turned down two kickable penalties in succession, as they looked to respond with a try of their own. But Elvis Taione was off-target with his throw, giving Tigers the scrum put-in 5m out and the chance to use up more time.
The defensive effort was summed up by Ford’s crunching tackle on Slade, that forced a knock-on in midfield.
Exeter had another chance for a bonus-point, and after turning down a number of penalty kicks at goal and with time running out, Steenson opted to go for the posts from wide on the right.
But with less than a minute on the clock his kick struck the right-hand post and Tigers smothered possession to win the scrum put-in. However, Tigers were whistled at the scrum and Steenson landed the penalty with the final kick to give Exeter their losing bonus point.