Leicester Tigers had to come from behind to earn a vital 16-15 victory over Wasps at Welford Road, with George Ford landing a decisive late penalty, in Round 18 of the Aviva Premiership campaign.
Tigers got off to a flying start, with a try from Sione Kalamafoni in the opening three minutes, but Wasps enjoyed the best of the opportunities in the remainder of the half with Elliot Daly scoring twice and two other good chances thwarted within reach of the tryline.
The visitors had their chances, too, after the break, though a Ford penalty was the only score approaching the hour mark with Wasps 15-10 in front.
Ford added a second kick to cut the gap to two points with 10 minutes to play and then kept his nerve to land the winning kick on 76 minutes.
England internationals Ford, Jonny May, Dan Cole and Ellis Genge returned to the Tigers squad for the sell-out encounter with their near-neighbours. Valentino Mapapalangi and Luke Hamilton come into the back row with Mike Williams and Brendon O’Connor ruled out by injury.
Tigers showed their intent from kick-off with a penalty inside the Wasps 22 and Ford's kick into the right-hand corner led to the breakthrough score.
Graham Kitchener made the lineout catch and then, as the forwards pushed towards the line, it was the Kalamafoni who got over to score. Ford added an immaculate kick from the left touchline for a seven-point lead.
Wasps looked for an instant response and added a series of promising phases in attack before being penalised at the breakdown, bringing a big cheer from a capacity crowd as Ford cleared up to halfway.
When Wasps were penalised again on their own 10-metre line, Ford called for the tee and struck the ball firmly but pushed the kick just wide of the right-hand post.
A break by Telusa Veainu, showing the Wasps defence a clean pair of heels 40 metres out, looked like it had provided a second score on 10 minutes. Drawing the full-back, Veainu put Sam Harrison on a run to the line, but Dan Robson made a try-saving tackle almost within reach of a score.
Wasps turned over ball and made a quick break, but then lost possession inside the Tigers 22. In the build-up, however, Tigers lost both Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May to injury. Tuilagi looked like he had taken a hit in the chest, while May was left on the ground after he clashed with Christian Wade’s shoulder as he looked to make a tackle.
Nick Malouf and Mathew Tait joined a re-shaped Tigers backline and they were still settling in when Wade broke through before a tackle from Matt Toomua on his own line denied Thomas Young a certain score.
But Wasps made sure from the five-metre scrum, creating space for Robson to put left wing Daly in to score in the corner. Jimmy Gopperth was unable to add the extras as the Tigers lead was cut to 7-5.
Kitchener and Cole give Tigers some go-forward as the game restarted, but a knock-on 25 metres out presented Wasps with a scrum put-in. They also won a penalty from the set-piece and took play back up into Tigers territory.
Referee Luke Pearce blew again, this time against Mike Fitzgerald, at the lineout and Wasps pushed play up to the right-hand corner.
Although Tigers repelled the initial drive, they were penalised again for an early hit at the lineout and this time Wasps pointed to the posts. Before Gopperth could take the kick, however, the Television Match Official drew the referee’s attention to a tackle from Malouf on Wade and, although he agreed that initial contact had been on the shoulder before riding up, he showed the yellow card to the Tigers replacement. Gopperth was then able to line up the kick from the position of that offence, in front of the posts on the 22, and kicked the visitors into an 8-7 lead.
Daly grabbed his second try on 24 minutes after a swift Wasps attack which cleverly gave them an extra man wide on he left, though the home crowd felt there had been an obstruction in the build-up. Danny Cipriani this time took the conversion and made it 15-7 to the visitors.
A third try looked on the cards when Willie Le Roux capitalised on a shortage of numbers in the Tigers defence and, even though he looked like he'd misjudged his kick through, the South African managed to gather possession but his over-the-shoulder pass just a few metres out evaded Robson’s grasp and he knocked-on as Tigers survived.
Ford had to show his pace and anticipation in defence as Wade nudged the ball through on the right wing from a quick attack. The fly-half won the race but had to dot down behind his own line.
Malouf returned as Wasps set the five-metre scrum, and this time Tigers had the penalty as the visiting front row collapsed.
Strong work from Adam Thompstone at the kick-chase regained possession for Tigers and set free some superb work from Toomua, Tait and Veainu in the backline, but the last pass missed Malouf on the right.
Tait turned saviour in what would prove a game-changing moment just seconds later, chasing 50 metres to take Robson into on the corner flag as the Wasps scrum-half intercepted ball near halfway and looked sure to score.
Wasps lost Daly to a nasty-looking hand injury, the wing being helped off by medical staff after being hurt near halfway as he attempted to tackle Veainu as the visitors reached half-time with an eight-point lead.
They almost stretched that in the opening minutes of the second period as Le Roux made another clean break through a short-handed backline, only for Toomua to bring him down with a desperate tap tackle just 10 metres out.
Ford added three points to the Tigers total with a penalty from 30 metres when Wasps were ruled offside on 46 minutes.
Fitzgerald and Hamilton combined to win turnover ball in defence after Wade had threatened again on the Wasps right wing, but it was the away side still dominating territory and possession as they looked to create some daylight on the scoreboard.
Genge made his return on 52 minutes, but Tigers were again down to 14 men after a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on by Veainu as Cipriani broke clear with support on each shoulder. And the loosehead prop made an immediate impact, getting on the ball to disrupt Wasps at a well-placed lineout.
But back came Wasps, with centre Juan De Jongh brought down five metres from the line by Kalamafoni when he had escaped the defensive backline. Genge knocked-on as he wrapped up loose ball, but Tigers were given an opportunity to get out of their danger zone when they were awarded a penalty at the scrum, with Ford drilling the kick 70-plus metres downfield.
From the lineout, though, Wasps wrapped up man and ball to deny Tigers a platform.
Good defensive work near halfway by Mapapalangi forced Wade into touch, but Tigers were finding it difficult to get on the front foot in a tight contest between two old rivals.
Veainu returned on 62 minutes, with Harry Simmons introduced at scrum-half.
The Tigers pack, though, began to build a platform with another scrum penalty, which Ford thumped up to the Wasps 22, and the home side at last began to build some phases of pressure with Hamilton, Genge and Tatafu Polota-Nau carrying strongly. But Josh Bassett picked off a pass on the Tigers right and danger was averted.
Tigers tried again, with Kitchener thumping ball up in midfield, but the second-rower was wrapped up in possession and the visitors gained put-in at the scrum.
A massive heave from the Tigers pack pushed Wasps off their own ball and a penalty was awarded on the 22, which Ford kicked to bring the score back to 13-15 with 10 minutes remaining.
Another big scrum effort brought another penalty on halfway, with referee Pearce warning Wasps of any further offences there.
Ford put ball into touch on the visitors’ 22 with the capacity crowd fully behind their team’s chase for crucial points. The whistle against Wasps at the lineout was greeted with cheers and a bigger roar followed when Ford put Tigers 16-15 in front from the kick, keeping his nerve to give Tigers a precious lead again.
Three minutes remained on the clock with Tigers in front for the first time since the 22nd minute.
The cheers grew when the hosts won ball in contact and then Hamilton kicked 50 metres upfield close to the right touchline, forcing Wasps to try to play out again.
Tigers knocked on, giving Wasps a scrum 10 metres from their own tryline as the clock reached 79 minutes, but a final knock-on brought a huge cheer from the crowd as Tigers closed out a vital victory.