Top-of-the-table Exeter Chiefs recorded a 52-20 victory over Leicester Tigers who lost skipper Tom Youngs to a second-half red card at Welford Road on Saturday.
The Chiefs ran in seven tries in the Gallagher Premiership Round 18 contest which said everything for their efficiency in possession but did not do total justice to the effort of the home side.
Scores from Matt Kvesic and Jack Yeandle gave the visitors a 14-3 lead before Jonny May dotted down for Tigers. But Olly Woodburn and Henry Slade dotted down to claim the bonus point score with just half an hour played.
The opening period ended with Tigers playing from their own line and, inspired by George Ford and boosted by the crowd noise, scoring through Tom Youngs as they trimmed the gap to 20-28 at the break.
But 10 points for the visitors when they had a man in the sin bin early in the second half dragged momentum back and they added further scores and then saw Tigers down to 14 men as skipper Youngs was red-carded for contact with the neck area of an opponent at a ruck.
Tigers lined up with Matt Toomua at full-back and Jordan Olowofela moving to the wing, while Brendon O’Connor ran out for his 50th Premiership appearance in a re-shaped back row alongside Mike Fitzgerald and Mike Williams. Valentino Mapapalangi came into the squad for the first time since the European Cup match against Scarlets in January.
Chiefs were already without second-rowers Jonny Hill, Mitch Lees and Sam Skinner due to knocks and then lost Australia international Dave Dennis with a calf injury ahead of kick-off, with Sean Lonsdale promoted from the bench.
Tigers, going into the Round 18 fixture in 10th place in the table, got the game under way and it was a ferocious opening period too, on and off the ball, with tackles flying in from both sides in the middle third of the field.
But Chiefs claimed a breakthrough score with their first real series of phases in Tigers territory, providing some space on the left where Kvesic forced his way over for his seventh Premiership try of the season. Joe Simmonds judged his conversion kick well to turn it into a seven-point score.
Tigers, with the crowd providing their encouragement, almost found a way through determined defence when Toomua pushed the all out to Olowofela on the wing but he was brought down just five metres out. The forwards retained possession, making their carries and clears, until Chiefs were penalised in front of the posts and Ford knocked over the penalty.
Chiefs were handed a penalty from the restart when the Tigers defence was caught offside and Simmonds played into the corner. But, after making the lineout catch, Don Armand spilled ball under pressure and the crowd rose as if a try had been scored by the home team when Sam Harrison hammered it clear.
The whistle went again, though, for another offside, and despite being repelled close to the posts, they kept their patience in possession until hooker Yeandle was able to push his way through a tackle and drop over the line. Simmonds kicked the conversion to make it 14-3.
Tigers, whose confidence has been noted for its fragility in recent weeks, came straight back at their top-of-the-table visitors with Ford showing superb footwork to beat the defensive line and then break clear. He was tackled almost within reach of the line but, playing with penalty advantage, Tigers sprayed the ball wide with Toomua picking out May to score in the right-hand corner.
The referee awarded the score then spoke to Kvesic and Manu Tuilagi as emotions ran high in the corner. Ford had to wait to make his conversion kick but judged it to perfection from the touchline as he brought it back to 10-14 on 26 minutes.
The game restarted, though, with a penalty to Exeter for the ‘afters’ in the celebrations and they made the most of the opportunity with a kick down the right and from the lineout, the played on first phase to the opposite corner and Woodburn dived in to score.
Simmonds added his third conversion and even better followed for the visitors as Jack Nowell picked off loose ball in midfield and then the Chiefs released bodies on the left wing. Armand’s offload found Woodburn and he passed inside for Slade who ran in to score on his 100th Premiership appearance and provide a bonus point.
Fly-half Simmonds added the kick to make it 10-28 but Tigers fly-half Ford provided the impetus for the next attack by the home side as Olowofela went through, but Chiefs quickly found themselves down to 14 men when Nowell was yellow-carded for slapping the ball out of Tigers hands at the breakdown.
Ford kicked the three-pointer but then had O’Connor penalised for handling the ball at a ruck 30 metres out. Chiefs turned down a kick at goal to play into the left-hand corner but were met with stubborn resistance and they wrapped up ball.
The half ended with Tigers showing plenty of ambition on the ball, with Ford instigating a length-of-the-field attack using ball in hand through forwards and backs which was only halted by the referee’s whistle for a penalty.
Ford punched the penalty into the left-and corner with the crowd adding their vocal support and the volume increased when they had a second try to cheer moments later.
Toomua’s crosskick found May and, though he was stopped just inches out, Tigers kept ball and Youngs, with his pack ganging up around him, managed to squeeze his way over. Ford managed to re-gather his thoughts to provide the conversion as the crowd stood to applaud the spirit of their team.
Eastmond limped off, with Sam Aspland-Robinson coming into the backline, allowing Toomua to move forward to centre alongside Tuilagi.
But Chiefs started the second half with a penalty from Simmonds after Olowofela had claimed the kick-off but weas then penalised as he tried to recycle.
And just as Tigers needed to throw some shots at the start of the second period, Chiefs ran in a fifth score, made by Slade with a lightning break through the middle before feeding Ollie Devoto to score. Simmonds kicked the extras to make it 20-38.
Tigers were fuming when the whistle went against them at a ruck near halfway and their mood was not improved when Chiefs full-back Cordero wriggled his way to the line for a sixth try on 53 minutes. Simmonds maintained his perfect record from the tee wioth the conversion for a 20-45 lead.
Tigers were next on the scoresheet, or so they thought, as Toomua finished in the right-hand corner after strong work from the forwards.
But referee Thomas Foley was called back to view the replays of the build-up, where Chiefs lock Ollie Adkins had been hurt at a breakdown after contact from Youngs. The review ended with a red card for contact with the neck and Tigers were left having to regroup with 14 men.
When Kvesic won a breakdown penalty moments later, Exeter went to the right-hand corner but Dan Cole held up their push for the line as he fought for the ball and the game reward was a scrum which brought a penalty and relief for the undermanned defence.
But in chasing the game, Tigers conceded a seventh try when Toomua’s pass on the Chiefs 22 was picked off by Nowell and he stayed clear to score and take his side to the half-century mark. Simmonds kicked the conversion to make it 20-52..
The home crowd stuck with their team as play opened up all over the field and, to their credit, Tigers continued to press for opportunities while having to cover space in defence, with Tuilagi making a timely hit on Simmonds as the Chiefs broke out on the left.
A brilliant break out of defence from Ford’s chip got the crowd going again as Gareth Owen led the charge, but Olowofela was caught by Nowell as May screamed for the ball on the left touchline.