A depleted Leicester Tigers grabbed a spirited 19-14 win over Wasps at Welford Road on Saturday to end a run of five defeats.
It came at a cost with a succession of first-half injuries which resulted in Jonah Holmes moving from wing to scrum-half and Will Evans playing in the backline as Tigers trailed 14-9 down at half-time before fighting back to lead with Joe Ford converting his own try approaching the 50-minute mark.
Ford, who scored all 19 points on the day, put Tigers five in front with quarter of an hour remaining with another penalty but they had to survive a final big push and a call for a last-gasp try from the visitors before taking the four points.
Tigers were back at Welford Road for the first time since January 19 in the opening leg of successive home games against Wasps and Northampton – a ‘Battle of the Midlands’ double – and in front of the biggest crowd of the season so far with more than 25,000 tickets sold.
After a win for Bristol against Gloucester on Friday evening, Tigers slipped to 10th in the table before kick-off, five points behind sixth-placed Wasps going into the game in Round 15 of the Gallagher Premiership season.
Will Spencer and Guy Thompson returned to the Tigers pack after featuring among the replacements at Worcester last week on their recovery from injury, and there was a first Premiership start for Sam Aspland-Robinson and Facundo Gigena. Head coach Geordan Murphy, though, was without his five England players as well as Matt Toomua who was ruled out by a head injury suffered in the first half at Worcester last Sunday.
After scrum-half Joe Simpson led out Wasps in his 250th appearance for the club, fly-half Rob Miller got the game under way towards the Robin Hood Stand end but the visitors were forced into a change just three minutes into the game when Thomas Young limped off, to be replaced by Jack Willis.
Wasps opened the scoring as they pushed penalty into Tigers territory and they used it to punch ball up through the forwards before spreading play to the other flank where wing Marcus Watson was free to run in with just eight minutes gone. Miller judged his conversion kick to perfection as he made it into a seven-point lead.
By that stage, Sam Harrison had emerged from the bench as a temporary replacement for Ben White at scrum-half for Tigers and he was needed in defence as Gaby Lovobalavu threatened a break in midfield.
A high tackle near halfway gave Tigers a penalty and Ford landed a pinpoint kick into the left-hand corner but Wasps swarmed around the lineout to turn over ball.
White returned from an HIA as Tigers had a penalty into the right-hand corner and got within a metre of the tryline through the forwards under the posts before the whistle went again.
This time, Ford took the points on offer with a kick from in front of the posts and cut the deficit to 3-7 with a quarter of the game played.
Leonardo Sarto came on for his Premiership debut at the restart with Gareth Owen leaving the field, then White left the field a second time after making a tackle, with Harrison back on at half-back.
Ashley Johnson’s high tackle on George Worth brought whistles from the crowd as well as from referee JP Doyle, but Tigers were then stopped by a deliberate knock-on in midfield and Ford added a second penalty to make it 6-7.
But Wasps replied immediately with a second try from Watson, capitalising on ball in broken-field to run in on the right again. Miller added the conversion.
The half ended with more drama as Simpson’s boot connected with Harrison’s head as he dived on loose ball. The Tigers scrum-half left the field, with Holmes taking over in his position and flanker Evans joining the backline from the bench.
After viewing replays of the incident, no further action was taken, but Tigers did get a penalty at the scrum which restarted the game and Ford brought the half to a close with another three-pointer and with his team 9-14 down.
The opening phases of the second half saw Tommy Taylor sin-binned as team offences mounted up against Wasps and, when Tigers went to the corner, Johnson was penalised as the maul drove towards the line. Tigers went for a repeat and this time, when the forwards were stopped, Holmes found Ford and he scored to the right of the posts.
The fly-half added the extras and Tigers were in front for the first time in the game at 16-14 on 48 minutes.
Aspland-Robinson made a timely intervention as No8 Nizaam Carr broke the defensive line, then Thompson was called into action on the touchline in front of the Terrace as Wasps looked to build a response in attack.
Facundo Gigena’s day was done on 50 minutes as he limped off, with Campese Ma’afu joining the Tigers front row with defensive work to be done.
Taylor returned from his yellow card but then missed his man at an attacking lineout and Sione Kalamfaoni carried out for Tigers.
Wasps momentarily thought they’d spotted a gap in midfield when Carr offloaded for Willis but the ball had gone forward on the Tigers 22 and the middle chunk of the half became a disjointed affair as Tigers protected a narrow lead.
A penalty in the centre of the field gave Wasps a chance to get forward and, when Johnson broke through two tackles Tigers were on the back foot. Dan Cole brought him down but they had two dives for the tryline, claiming a score, before the TMO confirmed the referee’s suspicion that control had been lost by Willis as he tried to dot down.
It took Tigers several phases from the resulting scrum to clear their lines, with Ford stepping in to take play 20 metres upfield, and Thompson earned welcome relief as he got over the ball at the breakdown and earned a priceless penalty to take the game back up to halfway.
Jake Kerr replaced Tom Youngs just after the hour mark, with Mike Fitzgerald on for Mike Williams
A break by Thompson had the Wasps defence scrambling and picked up the noise in the crowd, which increased when the visitors were blown up at a tackle and then marched back 10 metres for something said to the referee.
Ford, from 25 metres, kicked his fourth penalty of the afternoon to make it 19-14 with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Willie Le Roux’s prodded kick down the right forced Tigers back and gave Wasps a big chance at a lineout but they missed their jumper at the back again and when Ford booted clear, Josh Bassett misjudged his catch and put a toe in touch in front of the home dug-out.
Graham Kitchener took a brave catch under pressure at the lineout but the ball was wrapped up by the forwards as the clock continued to tick down. There was an element of fortune for Tigers, too, as James Gaskell charged down the clearing kick but was frustrated that the ball did not bounce favourably.
A superb tackle from Cole halted Watson at his most dangerous as he picked his way through broken field as nerves started to jangle in Leicester ranks.
Wasps pushed another penalty to the right and, although Evans stopped Johnson’s drive, the whistle blew again and play remained in the danger area. Aspland-Robinson, though, closed down dangerman Watson as Le Roux found him on the left touchline and the chance was gone.
Fitzgerald claimed the defensive lineout to take play towards the 22 but a knock-on kept Tigers pinned back with the clock up to 77 minutes.
The tension continued to rise and a huge cheer greeted powerful defence from George Worth which forced Wasps back another few metres and then when a tackle on Le Roux took him into touch on the Tigers left. Although the visitors had the throw and retained possession, Tigers refused to let them in, but Wasps won lineout ball with 30 seconds left to create one more push forward.
It ended with Tigers defending the tryline until Wasps prop Biyi Alo thought he’d scored. The referee called for assistance from the TMO and, with home fans holding their breath, eventually ruled that the ball had been held up. With no time to restart, Tigers had a precious home win after five successive defeats.