A Nick Malouf try in the final minutes gave Leicester Tigers a bonus-point 35-27 victory over Sale Sharks at Welford Road on Sunday in Round 8 of the Aviva Premiership season.
The lead changed hands virtually with every score of the afternoon, with Sharks running in their bonus-point try just 10 minutes into the second half. But there was never more than five points separating the teams until Malouf’s final reach for the line in the 78th minute.
After trailing to an early Ben Curry try – with Telusa Veainu already in the sinbin after just four minutes – Tigers took the lead for the first time midway through the first half. In a rollercoaster encounter, Tigers trailed again before Ellis Genge’s first try of the season. But then Marland Yarde replied as the visitors went in at the break 22-20 in front.
The scoring continued in the second half, Tigers finally edging three points in front with a smart finish by Gareth Owen before the grandstand ending.
After five successive wins in Aviva Premiership rugby, Tigers were led out by skipper Tom Youngs, making his 100th appearance in top-flight league rugby.
Tigers welcomed back Veainu and Malouf after a fortnight of Anglo-Welsh Cup action, and had Mike Williams and Gareth Owen in the starting line-up as they returned from injury. Mike Fitzgerald, originally named on the bench for his first appearance of the season following knee surgery, was a late call-up to the starting team after illness ruled out Dom Barrow on the day of the game. Pat Cilliers was also omitted after a fitness check, with Greg Bateman switching to tighthead and Ellis Genge coming in at loosehead.
Sharks, who won both of their cup fixtures against Saracens and Worcester, included new signing Yarde, with Denny Solomona on the opposite flank after his release from the England squad.
On a bright but chilly afternoon, Joe Ford kicked off and Sharks quickly showed their strength up front with a drive of more than 20 metres at a maul.
A snappy pass from James O’Connor then sent skipper Jono Ross through a gap and, although the next pass did not go to hand as Faf de Klerk burst through in support, the referee brought play to a halt for a deliberate knock-on by Veainu inside his own 22.
After checking the replays, referee Luke Pearce yellow-carded the Tigers full-back, but the home side escaped any further punishment as de Klerk hammered his kick from 20 metres against the outside of the post.
The scoreboard stayed blank for only another 90 seconds or so, though, as Valentino Mapapalangi was penalised for a high tackle in midfield and this time de Klerk sent his kick high between the posts for a three-point advantage with just over five minutes played.
Williams and Genge both carried strongly as Tigers looked to create some momentum on the ball and got their reward when Sharks were penalised at a ruck for playing the scrum-half Sam Harrison. Joe Ford stepped up to level the scores from the tee with 10 minutes gone.
Sharks immediately threatened the Tigers line with a sharp attack down the left but, even when Yarde was stopped just five metres out, the move was only brought to a halt when de Klerk knocked-on as he looked to snipe round the blindside of the tackle area.
It was another let-off for the Tigers defence and a strong scrum allowed Harrison to clear his lines before Veainu returned to the action.
Sharks were still dominating possession, though, and drilled a penalty down the right touchline when Matt Smith was whistled on halfway and this time they retained possession long enough to create the opening try.
Going through the phases 20 metres out, a chip from Mike Haley turned the defence and young flanker Curry dotted down in the corner. De Klerk was unable to add the conversion as the visitors led 8-3.
Ford missed his next kick at goal but Tigers stayed on the front foot with a penalty on the right and, with the referee playing advantage again, Ford's grubber almost led to a try. Smith, chasing the kick but also trying to avoid the goalposts, was adjudged to have knocked forward before he got downward pressure on the ball and, after consultation with the TMO, the referee went back for the penalty award on the right.
This time Tigers set up the drive and, after being stopped short, Tom Youngs picked up and referee Pearce signalled a penalty try with Sharks infringing in retreat on their own line. Curry was yellow-carded and, with no conversion necessary under this season’s new laws, Tigers led for the first time at 10-8.
That lead became five points just moments later with Ford’s second penalty after Sharks prop Will-Griff John had been ruled offside.
But Sharks were quickly in front again with another big set of phases close to the Tigers line creating the space for centre Mark Jennings to score on the right. De Klerk’s kick crept inside the right-hand post to give the visitors a 15-13 lead.
The response was immediate with Genge running in his first try of the season after good work by Will Evans, the prop timing his run on to a pass perfectly to beat the last tackler and score under the posts. Ford’s conversion made 20-15 with three minutes left to play in an entertaining and open first half.
but Sale were not to be outdone as Yarde capitalised on good work in attack to score wide on the left and the conversion from de Klerk from the touchline made it 20-22 in the visitors’ favour as the half came to a close.
Sale also had the opening opportunity of the second period, but de Klerk got underneath a penalty from halfway which fell well short and Veainu was able to boot clear.
When Sale were then penalised at a ruck, and marched a further 10 metres after backchat to the referee, Tigers elected to go into the left-hand corner. The lineout drive made a move towards the line but Curry wrapped up the carrier and Tigers were forced to re-set. This time, Sharks infringed under the posts and Ford nudged Tigers back in front with the penalty at 23-22.
Sharks responded with a push through phase-play in the forwards and gained a bonus-point try on 51 minutes as skipper Jono Ross powered over for their fourth of the afternoon. De Klerk missed the kick but the visitors were again in front at 23-27.
Tigers threatened with phases of play in the Sharks 22 before an offside award in midfield and, from another penalty, referee Pearce spoke to visiting captain Ross about his team's discipline. Tigers this time went to play quickly but Mapapalangi was held up in possession in the shadow of the posts.
Sale bravely used the defensive scrum as a platform to attack from deep and almost found a way through at the other end before Genge stripped ball from Bryn Evans on the 22-metre line.
The tightest of contests continued and, with the referee playing advantage for another offside, Ford’s crosskick found Owen who beat Yarde to the ball in the air and then superbly reached out one-handed to score in the right-hand corner.
The pressure was on the kick but Ford slotted an immaculate conversion from the touchline as Tigers led again at 30-27.
It was Owen’s last contribution, making way for Jonah Holmes to make his Premiership debut for the club as Brendon O’Connor replaced Evans with 68 minutes on the clock.
There was still no decisive move in momentum as Tigers spilled lineout ball in a promising position on the right and then from a knock-on in Sale 22 territory.
But Yarde found himself the victim of a mounting penalty count, being yellow-carded after a high tackle on Smith as the referee made the point to captain Ross that had already warned the Sharks.
From the penalty, Tigers set up a lineout drive, with Smith taking control of possession as he joined the push. The whistle went again, and again Tigers went to the corner. Although Sale resisted once more, the hosts remained composed enough to wait for their chance.
It came with just two minutes remaining as Mapapalangi straightened on an attack on the right and flicked a pass out for Malouf who showed great strength and determination to get over the line for the bonus-point score. It also put Tigers more than a score in front even before Ford’s failed conversion attempt at 35-27.