Leicester Tigers were beaten 37-44 by Worcester Warriors in an 11-try encounter at Welford Road on Sunday.
A first home defeat of the season came only after Tigers had fought back from 11-37 down to level the scores with just a couple of minutes left to play. But they had to settle for two bonus points as Warriors claimed their sixth and final try with the last attack of the game.
Two tries from fly-half Duncan Weir in the opening five minutes set Warriors on their way and hooker Jack Singleton added a third in the 24th minute.
Although Guy Thompson got a first for Tigers, the visitors grabbed a bonus-point score five minutes before half-time and led 30-11 at the break.
A score from Ted Hill took the lead out to 37-11 before scores from Jonny May and David Denton brought Tigers back into the game. And, just as they looked to be running out of time, Sione Kalamafoni claimed the bonus-point score to set up a grandstand finish.
An amazing comeback was capped by a try for George Ford which made it all-square at 37-37 before young lock Hill claimed his second of the day to secure a second successive win at Welford Road for the Warriors.
Worcester included Tigers academy graduate Ryan Bower in their matchday 23, while Tigers gave first starts of the season to Jordan Olowofela and Jonah Holmes in the backline and welcomed back Graham Kitchener for his first appearance of the season in the forward pack.
Warriors got the game under way, kicking towards the Mattioli Woods Stand as morning rain gave way to afternoon sunshine, and they gained a breakthrough with less than two minutes played.
After Ryan Mills had found a gap and threatened to go all the way before Tigers closed in, Warriors retained ball and, despite a tackle round the ankles of Bryce Heem by Olowofela just a few metres short, fly-half Weir arrived in support to run in . The Scot added the conversion for a seven-point lead.
With just five minutes gone, referee Luke Pearce confirmed a second score from Weir after checking a line of running in advance of the ball from lock Pierce Phillips and waved away claims for a forward pass in front of the posts.
Tigers finally gained some field position, carrying through the forwards before Pearce awarded a penalty for a high tackle on Denton. Ford drilled the ball down the left touchline and the home side built phase after phase of possession before finally being awarded a penalty under the posts. Ford put over the kick to reach 550 career points for the club and get Tigers off the mark with 12 minutes gone.
Warriors prop Callum Black was penalised at successive scrums, the second of which gave Ford another sight of the posts. Kicking from the right, 35 metres out, he struck the ball cleanly through the posts to make it 6-14.
Heem collected the restart kick with a perfect leap on Worcester’s right and Tigers were penalised as play spread across the field, allowing Weir to kick a three-pointer with quarter of the game played.
Kitchener was unable to keep hold of a pass from Ford as Tigers got back upfield with the Warriors defence spread across the field and Tigers were then penalised at the scrum just outside the visitors’ 22, allowing Weir to hammer a kick up the touchline. From the set-piece, Heem and Mills again combined in attack and, when they were stopped just short by a tackle from May, Weir picked out front-rower Singleton out wide on the left to score their third and silence the home crowd. Weir was off target with the touchline conversion but his side led 19-6 on 25 minutes.
A tackle off the ball by Nick Schonert on Tom Youngs 35 metres out brought a penalty for Tigers and Ford turned down the kick for goal to go to the left corner, with Warriors sending on Premiership debutant Hill for the injured Sam Lewis.
The decision to for touch gained reward with a score for Thompson – his first for the club – from a well-drilled lineout drive. Ford’s conversion attempt looked on course but the wind pushed it left of the near post.
Thompson then secured a timely turnover in defence and, when Tigers gained momentum going forward, referee Pearce blew up for a penalty. Tigers went to the left and stayed in attack from a free-kick at the lineout before Heem knocked-on in a tackle on Gareth Owen still just 12 metres from his own tryline.
Kalamafoni picked up strongly from the scrum but Tigers’ timing was off in midfield and Warriors managed to hack loose ball away. And, after a Tigers knock-on near the touchline, Warriors clinically claimed a bonus-point try from Chris Pennell in the left-hand corner to stretch the lead to 27-11.
The TMO brought the referee’s attention to a tackle off the ball in the next Warriors attack after Tigers had won turnover ball, but play came back for Weir to kick at the posts from 15 metres and make it 30-11 with 30 seconds left on the clock in the opening period.
Tigers needed a big start to the second half Tigers and, despite losing ball on halfway, they gained a penalty at the resulting scrum and set up a push towards the line before Warriors smothered ball-carrier Youngs and gained put-in ball of their own.
Kyle Eastmond replaced Gareth Owen before the game could restart but a scrappy beginning to the second period meant a drop in tempo just when Tigers were looking to lift the pace.
Good work in defence from Kitchener and skipper Youngs wrapped up Warriors ball and brought another scrum, but any flow was stifled on halfway as Warriors this time gained the put-in from holding up ball at the tackle zone.
Ten minutes had elapsed without either side building any phases of play before Warriors celebrated a fifth try when Hill capitalised on an over-throw at a Tigers defensive lineout and powered his way over. Pennell added the conversion with Weir off the field for a head injury check.
It was May who provided a lifeline on 59 minutes, latching on to a chip from Ford to run clear and score his fifth try of the season and Denton got his name on the scoresheet moments later, diving in from a ruck on the tryline after Ford’s pinpoint kick into the right-hand corner from a high-tackle penalty. This time Ford added the extra two points to make it 23-37 with 16 minutes remaining.
A penalty took Warriors back upfield, but Tigers read the lineout to win possession and were playing with advantage after May was played in the air chasing a kick when Kalamafani grabbed the bonus-point try.
Eastmond showed perfect timing on his pass to Thompson and, after Manu Tuilagi was stopped just short, play spread left and No8 Kalamafoni ran in. Ford thumped the conversion over to bring it back to a seven-point gap with 10 minutes to go,
It was Worcester’s turn to feel the pressure, conceding three tries in 11 minutes and then finding themselves back near their own line after a scrum penalty. But this time lock Anton Bresler managed to steal ball in a tackle to stop Tigers taking anything from the opportunity.
From the lineout, though, the home crowd raised the roof when Ford showed clever feet to break in midfield and then a turn of speed to race away. Although he was tackled just short, he was able to spin and touch down for a try which he then converted to level the scores.
England Under-20s cap Sam Lewis got on for his Premiership debut at the restart as the crowd caught its breath, with Joe Ford joining the backline with just a couple of minutes remaining.
But Worcester were quickly on the front foot as Tigers struggled to get out of their own territory and the visitors claimed the match-winning score through young Hill in the left-hand corner with the hosts short-handed in defence with replacement Jimmy Stevens floored in the previous phase. Weir took the full amount of time allowed for the conversion and slotted it safely with the final action of a remarkable match.