Leicester Tigers returned to winning ways in the Aviva Premiership with a hard-fought 19-15 victory over London Irish at Welford Road.
Tigers scored three tries to claim a first win in seven domestic and European fixtures.
They trailed to Joe Cokanasiga’s first-half score before tries either side of half-time swept them into the lead. Matt Toomua finished off Brendon O’Connor’s break for his first try in Tigers colours before Jonny May squeezed his way over for the second shortly after the restart.
Manu Tuilagi dived over from close range to give Tigers hope of a bonus point, but former Tiger Alex Lewington made it a nervous finale and earned Irish a losing point of their own with a try at the corner.
Tigers made one change to the starting XV with O’Connor coming in for Luke Hamilton in the back row. Harry Thacker came onto the bench following injury to Tom Youngs, while Greg Bateman returned from his injury lay-off to take his place among the replacements.
Centre Manu Tuilagi made his 100th appearance for the Tigers, while hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau made his first start at Welford Road. Irish included former Tigers Greig Tonks, Lewington and Seb de Chaves in their matchday 23.
Tigers began brightly with captain George Ford showing excellent awareness and a change of pace to break the Irish line and take Tigers into the Exiles 22. Tigers secured quick ball but Toomua’s pass for Malouf drifted forwards and the attack came to an end.
Irish had a lineout from which to launch their first attack, but Ofisa Treviranus knocked-on as he charged onto Blair Cowan’s pass. Ford forced the pass to launch a counterattack but as Alex Lewington intercepted play came back for the scrum.
Tigers were unable to exit from the scrum, however, and May was pinged for not releasing to give Irish the first shot at goal. Tonks was wide with his kick as the scores remained level after 10 minutes.
It put wind in the visitors’ sails and Cokanasiga broke a couple of tackles with an angled run that had Tigers scrambling in defence. Irish poured forwards but Adam Thompstone knocked on as he tackled James Marshall to halt the danger.
It was a cagey period as the game reached the end of the first quarter, with both teams kicking for territory.
But Irish, thanks to a maul penalty, got the better of the exchanges with Tonks finding touch on the 22. Polota-Nau read the overthrow and mopped up but Tigers were unable to clear. Ford was hassled into a mistake by Treviranus, Cokanasiga kicked through and held off Thompstone to get to the ball in-goal. Tonks’s conversion struck a post as Irish led 5-0.
Tigers replied with a period of pressure in the Irish 22. Malouf was stopped 5m short, but Tigers had an offside penalty. Ford shaped to go for touch but tapped and went. Sione Kalamafoni was stopped just short before the ball was shipped wide where Thompstone was tackled into touch as he reached for the corner.
Toomua was the next to show for Tigers. He glided through a gap and was halted by Tonks and Franco van der Merwe before O’Connor knocked on as he tried to pick up at the breakdown.
It was all Tigers at this stage and May’s sharp thinking caught Irish cold at a ruck. However, Tigers were unable to get to May in numbers and with Irish disrupting the ball, the chance went away.
Eventually the pressure told and Toomua crossed for Tigers’ opening try. And when it came the relief around Welford Road was palpable. O’Connor made the initial break and his offload out the back found Toomua’s supporting line for his first try for the club. Ford added the conversion to give Tigers the lead and take his points tally for the season past 100.
Tigers led 7-5 at the break and they made a flying start to the second half with a try inside two minutes. A lineout in the Irish 22 gave them a platform to attack, Williams’s run sucked in a couple of defenders and he found May, who still had work to do as he squeezed between two defenders to score at the right-hand corner. It went unconverted as Tigers led 12-5.
But it was Irish who scored next. Fly-half Marshall made the initial break that had Tigers under stress in defence and Tuilagi conceded the penalty playing the ball on the floor. Tonks’s kick found its way inside the post to cut Tigers’ lead to 12-8 after 57 minutes.
Tigers brought on Bateman, Thacker and Valentino Mapapalangi to replace Logovi’i Mulipola, Polota-Nau and Williams before the restart.
Irish began to infringe in defence, allowing Ford to kick into their 22. And when Tigers threatened the line through Kalamafoni he was hit with a no-arms tackle by Saia Fainga’a to concede another penalty. Tigers went again, but again Irish stood firm and wrapped up Kitchener in a maul to win the turnover.
But Tigers kept coming and thought they had scored a try from another 5m lineout. Kitchener’s clever play off the top allowed Ben Youngs to send Tuilagi crashing through but he was stopped just short. Kalamafoni followed up but the TMO ruled that he was held up over the line.
Tigers continued to press and created another chance, but this time Ford and Toomua overplayed and Thompstone was closed down.
They kept possession, however, and eventually made the pressure tell. With Tigers driving at the heart of the Irish defence, Tuilagi dived over the top of a pile of bodies to score under the posts. Ford converted to put Tigers 19-8 ahead.
Irish swept to the other end and responded immediately with their second try. Lewington was presented with the ball on the left touchline where he held off Ford to score at the corner. Tonks converted to cut the lead to 19-15 with five minutes to go.
Tigers had one last chance to claim the bonus-point try with a 5m penalty lineout in injury time. However, Cole was pinged as he joined the maul.
Instead, Irish tapped and went and then won another penalty for an off-the-ball tackle to kick up to halfway. Tigers overturned possession in a frenetic finale and Mathew Tait and Malouf combined to take Tigers back into the Irish half. However, Mapapalangi’s knock-on 30m out brought the attack and the game to an end.