Leicester Tigers claimed a fourth successive win in the Aviva Premiership with three tries in a 28-27 verdict at London Irish on Saturday.
Nick Malouf provided the opening score after just three minutes, but Tigers were made to work hard by an Irish side with just one win in the previous five rounds of the season and the hosts claimed a consolation point with a converted try in the final minute of the game.
Tigers led 14-3 at half-time at the Madejski Stadium and tries from Will Evans and Jonny May stretched that advantage to 28-13 midway through the second period but they were unable to completely kill off Irish resistance or find their way to a bonus-point score in a frantic final 20 minutes.
They did, though, make it just one defeat in the last 16 meetings of the teams in all competitions in the final round of league fixtures before the start of the European Cup campaign in Paris next Saturday.
Head coach Matt O’Connor handed debuts to Gareth Owen and on-loan Dan Tuohy, and called Valentino Mapapalangi, George McGuigan, Will Evans and Sam Harrison into the starting line-up for the first time this season. He also had to make late changes when Ben Youngs and Telusa Veainu pulled out due to illness. Ben White stepped up to the bench as cover for Harrison, with Mathew Tait promoted to full-back and Matt Smith coming into the matchday 23.
Sebastian De Chaves, Tommy Bell and Tigers academy graduates Greig Tonks, Alex Lewington and Scott Steele were all included an Irish squad who went into the game with just one win from the opening five rounds.
After Irish had kicked off, Tigers retained ball for the opening three minutes, with Tait involved twice and the forwards providing quick recycled ball which led to the opening try for Malouf, his third of the season.
Scrum-half Harrison looked like he was going to jink his way all the way to the tryline but, after being dragged down fractionally short, Ford stepped in to pass to his right where Matt Toomua picked out his countryman to score in the corner.
After Ford had missed with the conversion attempt, Irish enjoyed a spell of possession outside the Tigers 22 without threatening the line and Tigers were able to add to the lead with a penalty from the fly-half with eight minutes gone.
Owen enjoyed plenty of opportunities to get his hands on the ball as Tigers built in attack and his break from halfway almost led to a second score, only for the Irish defence to close in as he looked for support 30 metres out. The knock-on gave Tigers scrum ball, but this time Ford’s chip in behind was too far in front of Malouf.
A break from Tait then threatened the Irish defence, making 30 metres on the right before the door was finally closed.
Ford added to the score again on 17 minutes when Irish were whistled for a high tackle on McGuigan in another promising position and the kick from 25 metres made it 11-0 to the visitors.
Another break from Owen had the away fans on their feet moments later, with Evans in support. Even when the ball fell loose, it was Tigers who reacted first, with Ford looking for space on the left, but Irish were this time able to force the error just as a try looked on the cards.
May was looking busy, talking a lot of ball in broken field as he searched for the gaps in midfield, and Owen provided a threat every time he took possession as Tigers played the entire opening quarter on the front foot.
A crosskick from Ford gave May some space and, after gathering superbly on the run, his pass inside was picked up by Tuohy in another dangerous position. McGuigan offered support but, as Tigers opened up play centrally, Irish forced a knock-on and the opportunity was gone.
The scrum, though, brought a penalty, and Ford was able extend the lead to 14 points with less than half an hour gone.
The Tigers defence was tested for the first time soon afterward as Irish built phases through the forwards but the line stayed intact when David Paice was held up by a combination of defenders as he reached for the tryline.
Sione Kalamafoni was on the ground as Irish built the attack before leaving for a head injury assessment, with Luke Hamilton replacing him in the back row. Harrison, too, suffered a knock and carried on after treatment for a cut.
Toomua made a big hit on fly-half James Marshall as Irish looked to open up the play, but the whistle brought play back for a knock-on in the tackle by the Tigers centre. In the break before the scrum could be set, however, the TMO brought referee JP Doyle’s attention to a tackle from Owen off the ball and the Welsh centre received a yellow card. Bell tok the opportunity to kick Irish’s opening points of the afternoon.
As the game restarted, White ran on to replace Harrison and Irish threatened a second score with possession close to the line before the Tigers defence closed in and were rewarded with a penalty as the half came to a close with the visitors 14-3 in front.
Harrison and Kalamafoni were both absent as the second half started with Tigers kicking off.
The second half was barely 90 seconds old when Evans provided some breathing space for Tigers, taking a simple pass from White on the right and running through a gap to score. Ford added the extras as Tigers led 21-3.
Owen returned from his yellow card as Irish were awarded a penalty wide on the left in the phases after the restart and Bell made no mistake with the kick, though his side still trailed by more than two scores.
Ellis Genge and Pat CIlliers joined the contest on 50 minutes as the packs came together for a scrum on halfway before Hamilton showed his strength in defence, ripping possession off Teofilo Paulo just as Irish looked to build an attack.
The hosts, however, did build some momentum on possession after the introduction of scrum-half Steele and were rewarded with a try from flanker Blair Cowan in the left-hand corner. Bell’s conversion brought the score to 21-13 and provided hope for the home support in a 6,188-strong crowd.
The third try for Tigers came with 18 minutes remaining, a strong drive from a close-range lineout allowing White to spread the play to left and a long pass from Toomua gave May a run-in for his sixth try in six games from the start of the season. Ford’s conversion made it 28-13.
Tuohy’s debut ended as Ford landed the kick, Harry Wells joining the pack, and Smith replacing Toomua.
A second Irish try followed, though, as a quick break by replacement prop Ollie Hoskins left the defence outnumbered and Steele threw the pass for hooker David Paice to score unopposed to the left of the posts. Bell added another kick as they trailed 28-20 with 10 minutes still to play.
Tom Youngs replaced McGuigan after 73 minutes with T8igers still looking to close out the game and find a bonus-point score.
Evans was still right at the heart of the action as Tigers had to defend an attack on the Irish left but needed treatment after contesting ball on the floor.
The action continued at a frantic pace, with Tait making a 50-metre break up to the Irish 22, only to be pulled down by Steele. It was the full-back’s final contribution before being replaced by Joe Ford as the clock reached 77 minutes.
The game concluded with Irish claiming their third try from Lewington, cutting on to a pass from Marshall 10 metres out and forcing his way to the line. The conversion brought them to within a point but time was already up as Tigers made it four wins from six games at the start of the season.