Leicester Tigers bounced back from a winless run with a 35-24 bonus-point triumph over Harlequins at Welford Road on Saturday.
A pair of first-half tries from Jonah Holmes, back in the team after recovering from a head knock, laid the ground as they led 23-9 at the break.
Then, after a scrappy start to the second period, Manu Tuilagi added his sixth try of the season and Jonny May dotted down for the bonus-point score as the home side started to stretch out in Gallagher Premiership Round 10 after eight successive defeats in all competitions.
With former Tiger colleagues – and one-time housemates – Geordan Murphy and Paul Gustard in opposite camps and just six points separating eight clubs in the table going into the weekend, it was always going to be an interesting afternoon as the teams meet in the final game of the calendar year.
This was also Murphy’s first appearance at Welford Road since being confirmed as Tigers head coach in midweek and he made four changes to the team that started against Racing 92 last weekend with Ben Youngs and Jonah Holmes coming into the backline, and Harry Wells and Guy Thompson selected in the forward pack.
George Ford got the game under way on a bright winter afternoon at Welford Road and Tigers quickly won back ball in the Quins half, wjere Ellis Genge’s break with support from Mike Fitzgerald almost brought a breakthrough after some strong carries up front. Ball was lost, though, just five metres from the Quins line and the game restarted wiotyj a defensive scrum.
The first scrum brought a free-kick in Tigers’ favour, then a penalty, and Ford and Tuilagi went close to the whitewash before the award of another penalty. This time Ford pointed goalwards and made it 23-0 with the kick.
A turnover win from Tigers looked like providing useful ball near halfway but the carrier was quickly isolated and it was Quins who had the benefit of the next whistle and they took pay into the left-hand corner with the kick. Tigers did well in defence to restrict the drive and won put-in at the scrum as they held up Quins.
Dave Ward infringed on halfway as Ford used clever footwork to manufacture some space and Tigers used the penalty to create the opening try for Holmes.
After Guy Thompson’s carry ,quick ball provided an opportunity on the left and Ford picked out Holmes, coming on a diagonal, to score on the left. For added the conversion for a 10-point lead on 15 minutes.
Fitzgerald made an important tackle on Joe Marchant at the restart just as Quins sensed some space in the Tigers defence and when James Chislholm failed to hold on to a pass on his toes, the home crowd provided more encouragement as Tigers packed down for the scrum.
But this time, referee Luke Pearce blew against the Tjgers eight and immediately signalled another penalty 35 metres out as Sione Kalamafoni failed to roll away in the breakdown. James Lang took on the kick to make it 10-3.
The fly-half then had to get back into defensive position to clear his lines with a 50-metre kick back into the Tigers half, but a misjudged clearance moments later provided more set-piece ball for the home side.
But Quins ripped ball in midfield and created their first threat as Alex Dombrandt charged into the Tigers 22. Manu Tuilagi made the tackle, but it was the visitors who were awarded the penalty and Lang cut the deficit to 10-6 with the kick as Tigers sent on Mike Williams to replace the injured Will Spencer.
Thompson was denied a try moments later when George Worth flicked ball aerial ball only for Pearce to rule that the ball had gone forward as the flanker ran to the line.
The referee took a moment to speak to England men Sinckler and Genge as Tigers were awarded another scrum penalty and Ford knocked over the kick to make it 13-6 on 28 minutes.
Less than a minute later, Holmes was in for his second of the afternoon and the crowd celebrated his run to the line after Tatafu Polota-Nau Had snaffled loose ball in his own half and broken 50 metres upfield before a perfect offload to the supporting wing. Ford’s conversion – his fourth successful kick from four attempts – made it 20-6 with just under half an hour played.
Lang added his third penalty soon afterwards and Tigers were then penalised at a scrum to give the visitors a chance to push play into their rivals’ territory again. A big defensive set across the field gave Quins little encouragement though until they had another penalty opportunity and Lang kicked to make it 20-9.
Tigers, though, returned to the attack with as sweeping move from right to left and when they recycled again, play was brought to a halt for an offside verdict in favour of the home team. Visiting centre Paul Lasike left the field after penalty treatment following injury in a tackle on Toomua, and the half ended with Ford kicking the 35-metre penalty to stretch the lead to 23-9.
Lang provided the first points after the break with a 45-metre kick but Tigers missed a chance to reply when failed to catch lineout ball after playing a penalty of their own into the right-hand corner.
But Ford quickly provided another opportunity with a massive kick to the right which landed on the first bounce in the corner. This time Williams caught at the front of the lineout but was impeded by the Quins pack as he came down and referee Pearce blew again.
Ford nudged to the corner once more, with the Christmas crowd in good voice but the visitors timed their defensive effort well to wrap up ball and the chance was gone.
Both teams were making mistakes in the opening 10 minutes after the break, with scrappy possession and kicks for position rather than any lengthy phases of play.
Tigers, though, finally put together a string of phases to create a score for Tuilagi in the right-hand corner, with Dan Cole rescuing scrappy ball in front of the posts to set u[ the chance. Referee Pearce looked long and hard at the replays before confirming the score.
Ford was off-target for the first time in the game with his conversion from the right touchline but his side were 28-12 in front approaching the hour mark.
Quins threatened with a lineout drive on their right and then had a penalty on the opposite side as they fought to get back into the game. After being held out for a number of phases, they eventually created numbers out wide and a superb offload in contact from Mike Brown put Nathan Earle in to score. Lang’s conversion made it 28-19 with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Any skipping heartbeats in home ranks, though, were calmed moments later when a barnstorming run from Tuilagi took play up towards the tryline and then Ford and Toomua linked up to provide space for May to run int he bonus-point score. Ford added an immaculate kick to make it 35-19.
Jake Kerr’s charge down the right from a lineout move got the crowd rocking again ut play was then halted for a forward pass just as the Tigers were building fresh momentum in the visiting half of the field.
Olowofela made his return to action as a 75th minute replacement for May, but the final phases of the game were played down in Tigers territory, with Quins looking for some consolation from a series of attacking scrums before getting over the line with one second left on the clock. The score was confirmed for back-rower Dombrandt and they turned down the kick at goal in order to make one last effort from the restart but there was no further reward as Tigers ended the year on a winning note.