Leicester Tigers got the season off to a winning start with a bonus-point 34-19 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday.
With 17,000 supporters back in the stadium after 18 months of lockdown and closures, Tigers were never headed by an Exeter team that have reached the last six Premiership Finals.
Freddie Steward, newly capped by England in the summer, set the ball rolling with the team’s opening try of the Gallagher Premiership season inside the first quarter of an hour.
Harry Potter added a second and Matt Scott a third at a crucial time soon after the visitors had a score disallowed as Tigers led 20-5.
The only score of the third quarter was a penalty try to the visitors as they pressured the Tigers line in the style that has made them among the most consistent teams in the league.
But Tigers rallied again with two scores from hooker Nic Dolly, in his first Premiership start, to stretch the lead to beyond 20 points before the visitors added another seven points in the final action of the match.
The game kicked off in glorious sunshine following a minute’s silence in tribute to all of those lost during the pandemic period, including a number of Tigers past players, and it was Tigers who struck first with George Ford landing a third-minute penalty.
Exeter were without some of their big names after the international summer but Steve Borthwick’s Tigers were led out by new club captain Ellis Genge who was busy in possession early on, making good gains in the build-up to a try for Steward at the end of an attack which had threatened in each corner.
Chiefs, though, quickly created their own score in the left-hand corner for Don Armand, using their forwards to attack the line after Tigers had been guilty of infringements in defence.
They could have had more points on the board, too, only to see Jack Maunder and Jack Innard denied when referee Ian Tempest consulted replays from two close-range finishes after some determined attack.
By that stage, Potter had added a second for Tigers, after Nadolo punched holes in the defence and Ben Youngs fired a long, quick pass out to the left where the wing ran in.
Borthwick’s team added another seven points just before half-time, this time from centre Scott.
An attack along the backline brought Steward on to the ball on the right and, when the bounce from his chip ahead deceived the Chiefs defence, he was able to gather again and Scott arrived at the next breakdown to reach out and score. Ford’s conversion made it 20-5 at the break.
The Tigers defence had to stand up to some more pressure at the start of the second half when Nadolo somehow managed to hold on to Henry Slade as he tried to reach into the right-hand corner and then had a period pinned back close to their own posts.
Although, they managed to get green, white and red shirts under the ball as Exeter pressed the line again, this time referee Tempest awarded a penalty try and also showed a yellow card to Harry Wells, the last man up from the pile of bodies.
That made the score 20-12 but any nerves were calmed by two tries from hooker Dolly in the next eight minutes, first as the maul drove over from a lineout on the right and then repeating the finish on the opposite side with the full forward pack joined by Nadolo and Scott in pushing the final metres as the lead reached 22 points entering the final 10 minutes.
Forward duo Francois van Wyk and Eli Snyman were sent on for the Tigers debuts, Freddie Burns earning a first outing in his second spell at the club and hooker Tom Cowan-Dickie joined them before the end as the game continued to flow from end to end.
Nowell made a timely tackle on Nadolo as he burst clear on the left, then the referee got in the way of an Exeter break on their left touchline before the visitors claimed the day’s final points with the last action of the game.
First, lock Sean Lonsdale was held up over the line under the posts as Tigers gathered in defence but then replacement scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne made the most of a gap in the rearguard to run through for a score which Harvey Skinner converted before the referee brought the afternoon to a close.