Leicester Tigers were beaten by a second-half fightback from defending champions Exeter Chiefs who won 35-13 in Round 3 of the Gallagher Premiership season at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday.
Tigers went in front in the first minute with a penalty and led 13-7 at half-time thanks to Calum Green’s first try for the club following a smart lineout drive against opponents with a perfect record in the opening two rounds of the season.
That lead remained intact until the 52nd minute when Exeter finally forced their way through stubborn defence and, vitally, they added another score to lead 21-13 entering the final quarter of a physical and bruising contest.
The reigning league and European champions made sure of the win, and an extra point, with a score from Sam Simmonds entering the final 10 minutes and quickly added an opportunist fifth.
Following the Round 2 defeat at London Irish, Tigers called Nephi Leatigaga – on his 27th birthday – into the front row, while Guy Porter and Harry Simmons started on the wings after injury to Kobus van Wyk and Harry Potter.
The game was one minute old when Zack Henry gave Tigers with a penalty from 25 metres after Chiefs had been whistled at the first breakdown on a bright but cold afternoon.
And the home side saw more positives as they won more ball at a breakdown when Chiefs fielded a kick on halfway. But visiting full-back Facundo Cordero was able to clear up and Chiefs made their first venture forward after Tigers were caught offside. The defence met them strongly, though, and eventually forced a handling error.
When Tigers were called for a high tackle, Chiefs kicked play up the left and followed with another, this time trusting their set-piece by kicking into the corner. But they were met with a succession of forceful tackles on the tryline until eventually being held up as they reached for the whitewash.
The clock ticked beyond the 10-minute mark as a re-set scrum started the game, and another penalty followed before Jack Yeandle tapped to force his way over for a try, with the conversion from Joe Simmonds taking them into a 7-3 lead.
Tigers met another penalty as they wrapped up ball at a lineout and almost sensed a chance as Freddie Steward, celebrating his 20th birthday, challenged for high ball on the Chiefs 22, only for scrum-half Stu Townsend to make a timely catch.
A scrum penalty on halfway gave Exeter another opening on the right but, this time, Green managed to steal ball at the lineout.
Play remained in Tigers territory where Matt Scott and then Cyle Brink made big hits, with the South African winning a penalty as he led the counter-ruck just 15 metres from his own tryline.
When the TMO called a no-arms tackle to give Tigers a penalty, Henry slotted it to bring the gap down to a single point on 32 minutes.
Jasper Wiese showed the force of his tackling after Sam Simmonds threatened with a break through midfield and Chiefs followed up with an error with a kick from hand direct into touch from near halfway.
A maul collapse against Exeter brought another blow of the whistle and Henry judged his kick perfectly into the right-hand corner to set up a very efficient score for Green.
Throwing long, Hanro Liebenberg caught cleanly and the forward pack arrived to drive play over the line, with Green touching down. Henry’s extras made it 13-7.
Chiefs responded with a break down the right featuring Cordero and Hendrickson, but Tigers swarmed back in defence and forced a knock-on, though they were pinned back for the closing minutes of the half, showing stern resistance from a succession of set-pieces until, finally, prop Leatigaga proved immoveable at the breakdown and the penalty award allowed Tigers to bring the half to a close with a 13-7 lead.
Wiese bounced off two would-be tacklers as he fielded the second-half kick-off, but was then penalised as he reached beyond the ball at the next breakdown.
Fly-half Simmonds stuck to script as he took play into the right-hand corner, but Tigers continued to hit hard in defence, with Dan Cole involved three times in the resistance before Jaco Taute hacked loose ball clear.
Steward then stepped into the line to block a break on the Chiefs left, with the visitors staying in Tigers territory.
Another penalty kept play in the corner, and Tigers somehow kept Ollie Devoto out as he was rolled backwards as he threatened on the tryline. But Exeter had been playing with advantage and started play with a five-metre scrum in front of the posts.
The whistle blew again as Exeter maintained possession and pressure in attack, gaining three penalty awards for offside before the effort finally took its toll and flanker Jannes Kirsten dived over from a ruck. The conversion put the visitors ahead by one point at 13-14.
And the visitors quickly added another when wing Ian Whitten read a kick from Townsend to dive into their right-hand corner. The kick made it 13-21 with 22 minutes still to play.
A carry from Guy Porter and then Jordan Taufua presented a chance for Tigers but Cordero smothered Henry as he created a two-on-one in the corner and the opportunity was gone.
Harry Simmons was penalised for a trip as he chased ball on the Chiefs tryline and he was sin-binned as the referee checked with the TMO.
Tiger capitalised on a clever kick from Porter to pin Exeter back but lost Tommy Reffell to a head knock just two minutes after introducing him from the bench while keeping ball in hand among the forwards within the Chiefs 22.
When Tigers forced an error in midfield, Jaco Taute’s kick behind the Chiefs defence ha Joes Simmonds scrambling back behind his own tryline to clear up as play was concentrated in the visitors’ territory.
Aggressive defence, though, kept Leicester out until Exeter were rewarded with a scrum penalty on halfway and then another on the floor as the visitors chased the bonus-point score.
It duly arrived from the lineout drive, with Sam Simmonds taking his tally to six in three games. His brother Joe added the extras for a 28-13 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Ollie Devoto was next on the scoresheet, reading a chip from replacement Joaquin Diaz Bonilla to block and pick off the rebound and run in. Jack Walsh added the conversion in the final scoring of the game.