Leicester Tigers were denied Christmas victory despite two tries from Jonny May and one from home debutant Jordan Taufua as Exeter Chiefs came from behind to win 31-22 at Welford Road on Saturday.
After an early score from the visitors, Tigers roared in front with two tries from May and one from Taufua on his first appearance at his new home to lead 19-7 and they were 22-14 in front at half-time in Round 6 of the Gallagher Premiership.
Exeter, though, showed their resilience and then produced two tries in the space of four second-half minutes to wrestle back the lead with just quarter of an hour remaining and spent the remainder of the game with their hosts pinned back near their own line.
The Chiefs were beaten 27-7 as the opening visitors of the season in the Premiership Rugby Cup back in September but returned to Welford Road on the back of five wins in a row in the league and European Cup.
After George Ford got the game underway, kicking towards The Robin Hood Stand end on a dry and bright afternoon, some quick recycling in midfield created the first half-chance for Tigers with Manu Tuilagi nudging the ball forward for May to gather, but Chiefs quickly got back in behind the ball to close him out.
The first award – and sight of the posts – went to the Chiefs as Tigers went off their feet at a ruck in possession. Slade turned down the chance to go for the posts and punted down to the right-hand corner where Exeter are always so dangerous.
Sione Kalamafoni blocked a dart for the line from Kvesic from the lineout but Exeter retained ball through a couple extra phases before lock Jannes Kirsten made the final push to score. Gareth Steenson converted for an early lead.
But the response was immediate with Telusa Veaniu’s break on the right finding Adam Thompstone in support and his over-arm pass to May who ran in to score. Ford added the kick to level the scores with less than 10 minutes played.
Strong work from Dan Cole stalled the next Chiefs attack just inside the Tigers half and the Taufua made his presence felt as he won a penalty over the ball.
And he made an even bigger impact on 13 minutes with his first try in Tigers colours, collecting a clever cross-kick from Ford and barging through the final defender wide on the right before slamming the ball down one-handed near the posts. Ford’s extras made it 14-7 with 15 minutes gone.
Chiefs were pinned back by another Ford kick down the right after impressive work from the forward pack in defence on the halfway line and the Christmas crowd were in good voice as ferocious work from Genge and then Cole upset Chiefs rhythm on halfway and brought put-in at a scrum.
A penalty went in favour of the Tigers in the first scrum of the day on 19 minutes and, after attacking the line through Tuilagi and Genge, Ford and Tuilagi combined on the left. There was still a lot of work to do for May but with three defenders between him and the line he somehow squeezed over to score, confirmed by the TMO. Ford had a touchline conversion but pushed it just across the far post with his team 19-7 in front.
A messy restart gave Tigers a scrum on their own 22 following an Exeter knock-on but it was the visitors who came up with the next score, using their forwards to battle towards the line following a break down the left and Don Armand made the final stretch for the fifth try of the opening half-hour. Steenson’s conversion brought them within a score at 19-14.
Two big carries at pace from Tuilagi and May’s run on to a chip from Ford had Tigers barrelling forward again, and a quick penalty on the right threatened the line before knocking-on inside the Chiefs 22.
Taufua won another penalty as he met a Chiefs attack head-on just inside his own half. Ford booted play into the right-hand corner and Tigers initiated a drive to the line after the throw but were rewarded with a penalty which Ford kicked from the 22 to make it 22-14.
The half closed with Tigers providing stern defence as Ollie Devoto made a break almost up to the tryline and the usual Chiefs carries up front before Tigers earned a penalty over the ball, greeted by a huge cheer from the home crowd.
Tigers also lost Will Spencer to a head knock before closing the half 22-14 in front.
Another big hit from Taufua halted Chiefs on the 22, but he was then whistled for not rolling away and Steenson took the chance to kick the three-pointer and cut the gap to five points.
A clever link between Taufua, Thompstone and Noel Reid wide on the right almnst put Tigers through the Chiefs defence before the visitors recovered their shape and forced a spill from Ben Youngs. But the Tigers pack responded with a big push and a penalty award at the scrum on halfway.
Exeter, though, read the lineout call and stole ball, and then earned a penalty for foul play. However, Tigers quickly reclaimed ball in defence with Lavanini carrying strongly.
A penalty in Exeter favour, though, gave Steenson a chance to take play up to the 22 on their right but they spilled possession at the lineout. Tigers were then penalised at their own set-piece and Steenson set up the position to drive again. This time they were wrapped up on the ball and Tigers had the put-in at the resulting scrum and were able to clear their lines.
Clean ball wasn’t easy for either team with the defences roaring into the breakdown area but some slick hands and good support took Exeter 50 metres upfield before they showed their tighter control for Armand to level the scores with his second try of the day on 62 minutes.
Steenson’s conversion nudged the visitors in front at 22-24 as Tatafu Polota-Nau made his return from injury from the Tigers bench and just moments later they stretched that advantage when Jonny Hill got on the end of a move on the right to dot down their fourth try. Steenson added the kick to take the lead to nine points.
A Tuilagi charge from deep had the crowd in good voice again but Tigers were still having to play from deep and forced to keep ball in hand at the wrong end of the field with Chiefs defending across the pitch.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT
Welford Road was in great voice this afternoon - we look forward to seeing you back here in 2020.
Thank you to the 21,219 of you who joined us at the ground this afternoon, and to all of those following along on Matchday Live elsewhere.
Tigers are back in action in the Gallagher Premiership away to Harlequins in Round 7 next Saturday, December 28 (4.30pm).
Until then, Merry Christmas.
FULL TIME | 22-31
...and that's the match. Tigers come away empty-handed despite scoring three tries against last year's Gallagher Premiership finalists.
EXETER HOLD FIRM
Despite the best efforts of a spirited Tigers side in the final few moments, Exeter manage to win the ball back and close out the game.
Exeter change both of their props as Billy Keast and Enrique Pieretto join the fray with just over a minute left to play.
Harry Wells does a great job of disrupting Exeter ball at the throw on the five-metre line, as the visitors look to close out this Round 6 fixture.
WORTH FOR TUILAGI
George Worth takes the place of Manu Tuilagi in the Leicester backline.
CONFUSING PASSAGE OF PLAY
The ball goes this way and that, and the Chiefs chip through as Ben White thinks the clock is done - the replacement scrum-half gets the ball into touch just in time, but Pearce cedes Exeter the field position.
Tigers try to kick their way out of harm's way, but the ball is charged down and Exeter pin the home side back down in front of The Robin Hood Stand once more.
RAFT OF CHANGES
Facundo Gigena (17), Nephi Leatigaga (18), Ben White (21) and Tom Hardwick (22) all join the cause, in place of Genge, Cole, Youngs and Reid.
TIGERS BUSTLED BACK
Exeter push on up the field, and edge ominously close to the Tigers line through more hefty carries as the rain starts to lash Welford Road.
SWITCH BACK FOR REID
The inside centre is used again as Ford pulls Reid around the corner, but the white wall of Exeter keeps pressing.
TUILAGI BURSTS THROUGH
The ball is out quickly, and Tuilagi finds an outside shoulder to get up to halfway before bundling off two Exeter defenders. Tigers keep posession through Reid and Youngs.
TIGERS SCRAMBLE BACK
Exeter set from their maul, find a few metres, and then feed the back down the right. Tigers get back just in the nick of time to stop them, and it'll be a Leicester scrum on the five-metre line.
Sean Lonsdale is on for Exeter forward Hill.
KICK TO TOUCH
Ford, Hogg and Veainu exchange kicks, but Exeter come out of this spot of kick tennis with the territory - they have a throw just beyond halfway.
REFFELL FOR TAUFUA
Tommy Reffell replaces Jordan Taufua in the Tigers back row.
AND THE EXTRAS
Steenson adds two more points with the boot.
Exeter have a fourth, this time through lock Jonny Hill.
TWO MORE CHANGES
A couple of changes for the visitors, with Kyle Cooper (16) and Stu Townsend (21) on for Taione and Maunder.
CHANGE AT HOOKER
Tatafu Polota-Nau returns from injury as he replaces Tigers skipper Tom Youngs.
EXETER PULL AHEAD
Steenson's successful conversion puts Exeter ahead by two points.
ARMAND PUTS EXETER LEVEL
Chiefs turn on their pick-and-go game once more, and it's back-rower Armand who profits with Exeter's third try.
EXETER PUSH FORWARD
The fringes of the Tigers defence are tested as Exeter switch this way and that following a break from hooker Elivis Taione.
Not a lot to report on, here, as both packs take their time to get set for another scrum.
Dave Dennis replaces Exeter try-scorer Jannes Kirsten.
Absolute effort from the Tigers pack forces the turnover deep into Tigers territory, and you can see what it means to the men in green, white and red as Harry Wells roars his approval from the bottom of a ruck.
CHIEFS LINEOUT LOST
The pressure rises at Welford Road, and Tigers do a brilliant job of disrupting the Exeter lineout inside the Leicester 22.
But, after a scrappy couple of minutes of play, Lavanini is pinged for doing so illegally.
TMO DECISION | SHOULDER CHARGE
And, just as we say that, TMO Rowan Kitt picks out the back-rower for what he describes as a no-arms tackle. A let-off for the Chiefs.
TAUFUA INTO THE ACTION
Taufua is back into the action after a cute pop-pass from fellow summer signing Lavanini. The New Zealander breaks up through the Exeter defenders.
SCRUM ON HALFWAY
Exeter look to be offside in broken play on halfway, but referee Pearce awards the scrum to Rob Baxter's men.
Genge - on the occasion of his 50th start - is having none of it, though, and leads the charge at the scrum to win a Tigers penalty.
FIRST POINTS OF THE HALF
Steenson takes three points with the boot to put Exeter within five.
HILL BURSTS THROUGH
Exeter lock Jonny Hill finds half a gap in the Tigers defence, but he's quickly wrapped up by Geordan Murphy's men.
The home side, though, give away a penalty on the floor and Stennson has a shot at goal.
Billy Keast is on for Ben Moon in the Exeter front row.
Henry Slade has been swapped for Sam Hill at the break.
MANU MUNCHES HOGG
Scotland international Stuart Hogg is the latest player to feel the full force of Manu Tuilagi, as the outside centre lines up his man in front of the Holland & Barrett Stand.
SECOND HALF UNDERWAY
Hold onto your (Santa) hats ... we're in for a massive second half of rugby here at Welford Road. Steenson gets the game going again.
MATCH ACTION | TAUFUA ROARS LIKE A TIGER
We think Jordan Taufua is pretty pleased to have scored his first try in Tigers colours this afternoon ... what about you?
HALF TIME | 22-14
Tigers lead at half-time through a Jonny May brace and Jordan Taufua's first score at Welford Road.
FREE KICK TO LEICESTER
Tigers win a free kick at the scrum, and that's the half.
WELLS FOR SPENCER
Spencer is back onto his feet, but he'll go off for a head injury assessment. He is replaced by Harry Wells.
FRANTIC FEW MOMENTS
Youngs finds Lavanini again at the lineout, but as the clock ticks into the red the ball is lost into Chiefs possession.
We'll pause for some treatment to Will Spencer as replays show he's taken a nasty knock.
ROAR FROM THE CROWD
Exeter centre Ollie Devoto breaks through the Tigers line, gets tackled, and then gets up again for a second bite of the cherry.
But, after a few phases of Chiefs pressure, Tigers win an all-important penalty on their line and can release the pressure once more.
Ford's kick from the tee is faultless, and he extends the Tigers lead to eight points with a couple of minutes left to go in this first half.
TIGERS LOOK MENACING
A brilliant take and a strong maul from the Tigers pack shoves them up towards the Exeter line, and the home side win penalty advantage as they work the ball across to the left.
Ford tries a grubber through, but it's blocked by an Exeter leg - and instead he'll opt for a kick at goal.
HUUUGE KICK TO TOUCH
Remember when people used to say George Ford didn't have the range? He's certainly got his kicking boots on this afternoon.
Another brilliant touchfinder pins Exeter down deep into their half.
BACK ROW COMBINE
But Tigers win the ball back seconds later, as Kalamafoni tackles his man and Taufua gets over the breakdown to claim a penalty. Sweet.
ARM UP FOR EXETER
There's a brief stoppage for refreshments - mince pie, anyone? - before the game is restarted with a scrum deep into Chiefs territory.
But the visitors win the penalty, and they can boot the ball downfield.
TWO MORE BIG HITS
Quick-thinking from Veainu sets up Tuilagi on a collision course with the Exeter defenders, but he makes another 20 metres up the field.
Then, with advantage, the ball is chipped forward for May, who hits Steenson hard in front of the Terrace.
Steenson splits the uprights with his conversion attempt, to bring the Chiefs to within five points.
EXETER TURN THE SCREW
The visitors work the ball up to the line once again through their heavy-duty forward runners, and it's Don Armand on the end of the score, despite the best efforts of Ellis Genge.
Lavanini is the man once again at the latest throw, and scrum-half Youngs gets the ball away well from the back of the maul to relieve the pressure for now.
Tigers shift into defensive mode as they pack down on the edge of their 22 for another pushing contest, with Youngs feeding the ball to brother Tom.
A tough conversion attempt from the touchline for Ford, and it just slides wide.
SECOND FOR JONNY
...and it's another score! Replays show May's boot came within millimetres of the touchline, but he reaches out and scores his second try of the game.
SLICK FROM THE LINEOUT
Tomás Lavanini is hoisted high into the air to claim the throw, with Ben Youngs whipping it away quickly for Tuilagi on the crash ball.
They work right, before folding back to the left where May thinks he's got a second! We'll check with TMO Rowan Kit...
SCRUM ALL YE FAITHFUL
First scrum of the game, and that'll bring a bit of Christmas Cheer to the Tigers Family.
Referee Luke Pearce sticks his arm up on the Tigers side, and Ford will pin Exeter back into the corner for another lineout throw.
Exeter go through the phases once more as they work their way up to halfway, but Tigers are bringing the challenge head-on at the breakdown with Dan Cole getting himself over the ball before a group of his mates come in to support, and the home side win the ball.
CHIEFS COUGH UP THE BALL
Hogg claims the restart, but Exeter spill the ball as they go through the hands and Noel Reid has it. Ford calls for the ball, as he spots some space in the backfield - and sets up an attacking lineout just beyond the five-metre line. Slick.
TWO MORE FROM THE BOOT
Another peach of a conversion from Ford and Tigers lead 14 points to seven.
AND ANOTHER FOR LEICESTER!
A brilliant cross-field kick from Ford picks out Welford Road debutant Jordan Taufua, who beats the final defender to score Tigers' second.
SLOW ON THE FLOOR
The visitors try their best to slow the ball at the breakdown once more, but when scrum-half Jack Maunder eventually digs it out, his pass to Stuart Hogg is above and behind the full-back.
He's brought down brilliantly as try-scorer May combines with England team-mate Manu Tuilagi in front of the Breedon Terrace.
ALL SQUARE AT WELFORD ROAD
Ford's conversion pins the scoreboard at seven-all.
TIGERS HIT BACK IMMEDIATELY!
Tigers win penalty advantage at the restart, and Adam Thompstone breaks down the right before feeding May with a basketball-style pass inside, and the England wing dives over. One try apiece!
Gareth Steenson adds the extras to give Exeter a seven-point lead at Welford Road.
EXETER DRAW FIRST BLOOD
...and they're over.
Jannes Kirsten crashes over for the first try of the afternoon.
SNEAKY LINEOUT MOVE
Exeter set for a ball at the back of the lineout, but Matt Kvesic leaps on his own at the front to feed the Chiefs' infamous forward runners. They nudge up to the line...
Both teams going hard at the breakdown already, but it's Exeter who win the first penalty of the afternoon as Sione Kalamafoni is pinged for going off his feet.
Chiefs kick to the corner.
HIGH BALL FOR TELUSA
Exeter gobble up possession from the kick-off, but can't break through the Leicester line and decide to go to the skies - where Tigers full-back Telusa Veainu springs highest to claim the first high ball of the afternoon.
He feeds his backline and there's half a chance for Jonny May to hack through on the left, but the ball is lost forward. Good early pressure, here.
KICK-OFF IN ROUND 6
George Ford puts boots to ball, and we're udnerway in Tigers' festive fixture at Welford Road.
SMOKE ON THE WATER
And, for one final time in 2019, club captain Tom Youngs leads out the men in green, white and red. Come on, Tigers!
VISITORS ONTO THE FIELD
Henry Slade leads out his Exeter Chiefs team onto the field here in Leicester.
FIVE MINUTES TO GO
A Christmas Cheer goes up from the Welford Road crowd as Tigers run up the tunnel after completing their final warm-ups. Moments to go here in this festive fixture.
CONFIRMED TEAM NEWS
Jordan Taufua makes his first appearance at Welford Road this afternoon, as he pulls on the No7 shirt to face Exeter. The back-rower’s previous appearances for the club since his arrival from New Zealand have both come on the road before being given a start in this Christmas fixture.
Elsewhere, England internationals Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Ellis Genge – marking his 50th start for the club – all return to the starting line-up alongside club captain Tom Youngs, and Tatafu Polota-Nau makes a return from injury to be named among the replacements.
Exeter retain six of their starting line-up from their European win over Sale Sharks last Sunday, and bring Don Armand and Matt Kvesic into the forward pack in a team captained by Henry Slade. High-profile summer signing Stuart Hogg starts at full-back.
See the full match line-ups by clicking here, or scrolling down on this page.
EXCLUSIVE | WHITE REVVED UP FOR CHIEFS CHALLENGE
Scrum-half Ben White explained that back-to-back European wins have set the men in green, white and red up nicely for a return to Premiership action – but that this afternoon will be a whole new challenge.
“It’s obviously good to pick up results on the road, which is something we haven’t done well in the last couple of years, so to do that – no matter how you get them – is important. That’s what we’re in this business for,” he said, in an exclusive chat for Matchday Live users.
“Exeter are a tough team to play against, but we’re definitely up for it. Every chance you get to play at Welford Road and play at home, it’s massive.
“We need to build that momentum and keep playing well, and try and build some performances no matter who we’re playing against. This week is a big challenge, and one we’re going to relish.”
TIGERS SET FOR CHRISTMAS BLOCK, SAYS YOUNGS
Club captain Tom Youngs has stressed his side must face the Chiefs ‘head-on’ this afternoon, ahead of two more huge games over the Christmas period against Harlequins and Bristol Bears.
“Our last game in the Premiership wasn’t, we felt, a reflection of what we’re about, but we’ve addressed a few things and we’re ready for Exeter at home, and then two big games after that,” he told LeicesterTigers.com earlier this week.
“The thing with Exeter is, they do what they do and don’t really change too much.
“You know what’s coming – the hard thing is going about stopping it. We’ve got to take them on, head-on. We know that.”
Read the skipper’s full preview of this Premiership block, right here.
FESTIVE FIXTURE PREVIEW
While it may only be December – and just Round 6 of this season’s Gallagher Premiership – Tigers take on Exeter Chiefs at Welford Road for the second time this term on Saturday afternoon.
Rob Baxter’s men were the first visitors of the campaign when they were beaten in the Premiership Rugby Cup back in September, with Noel Reid, Jordan Coghlan and Hanro Liebenberg all making their Tigers debuts and Calum Green making his first appearance since his summer return from Newcastle Falcons.
And, while both teams have four wins from four in European competition in recent weeks, this afternoon’s match is the first in a block of three domestic rounds over the Christmas period.
Read our full match preview here, or scroll down on this page.
WELCOME TO MATCHDAY LIVE!
We’re LIVE from Welford Road as Leicester Tigers take on Exeter Chiefs in the final home game of 2019, with kick-off to come at 3.00pm.
Follow all the action as it happens with our Matchday Live coverage, right here on the Tigers App and LeicesterTigers.com.