Leicester Tigers claimed a bonus-point win over Saracens at Allianz Park on Sunday. On a bright but bitterly cold afternoon in north London, a 28-20 victory represented a first in Premiership rugby at the venue.
Tigers got off to a strong start, retaining ball and testing the Sarries defence before Manu Tuilagi scored the breakthrough try after 10 minutes. Further first-half scores followed from Greg Bateman and Telusa Veainu as the visitors led 21-6 at half-time
A score from Jonah Holmes secured a bonus point midway through the second half before Saracens claimed a try from Max Malins, but they still trailed by 15 points with just 10 minutes remaining. Malins repeated the trick in the closing stages but Sarries emerged empty-handed from the encounter.
Sarries started the weekend on top of the league table, though they were leapfrogged by Exeter Chiefs on Saturday afternoon thanks to their last-minute win over Northampton Saints. They went into the game on a run of five successive league wins and with just one defeat in their previous 22 home games in the Aviva Premiership.
Tigers, in contrast, had never won a league game at the Allianz and had not beaten Saracens in Premiership Rugby since March 2016.
In team news announced on Friday, Tigers called Tatafu Polota-Nau into the front row in the only change from the starting line-up in the win over Harlequins, while the hosts made two changes with Nathan Earle coming in on the wing and Schalk Brits back in the pack after injury.
Kick-off followed a minute’s silence in respect of former Doncaster Knights prop Ian Williams who died last week and the match was less than two minutes old when Tigers were forced into a change. Gareth Owen stayed down after being tackled on halfway and, after being helped off holding his shoulder, he was replaced by Mathew Tait.
Polota-Nau also received physio treatment in the next phase of possession, while Matt Toomua waited to kick a penalty down the left touchline from halfway. Mike Williams claimed lineout ball on the Sarries 22 but the hosts then won turnover ball and cleared.
The Tigers forwards carried impressively in the next set of phases after a break from Brendon O’Connor, but just as there appeared to be an opening on the right, Veainu knocked on as he over-ran a pass.
The reward for the visitors’ patience in possession, however, came on 10 minutes when Tuilagi picked up at a breakdown 15 metres out and ran through to score. Toomua added the kick for a seven-point lead.
Toomua put a penalty wide five minutes later after referee Craig Maxwell-Keys blew for as high tackle on the fly-half.
Saracens also had to make an early change when Calum Clark went off injured on 17 minutes, to be replaced by Sione Vailanu as the packs came together for a scrum on the home 10-metre line.
The referee spoke to Sarries captain Brad Barritt and to Schalk Burger after the flanker had been whistled at the tackle zone, but from the lineout drive at the resultant penalty Tigers turned over possession just 10 metres out from the tryline.
The first 20 minutes had been played almost exclusively in the Sarries half before they were awarded a penalty on halfway and Ben Spencer pushed play into the opposition 22. But, after resisting a drive, Tigers then won turnover ball and cleared.
Sarries had a second chance when Graham Kitchener was penalised at the next lineout and this time Spencer pointed for a shot at goal. He made no mistake with the kick and got the hosts off the mark on 26 minutes.
Vailanu’s afternoon lasted only 10 minutes as he limped off approaching the half-hour, with replacement hooker Scott Spurling joining the Sarries pack.
Tigers claimed a second try of the afternoon, quickly turning defence into attack for Bateman to score next to the right-hand post.
Jonah Holmes started the work on the left, flanker O’Connor provided the support and then Williams made a punishing carry up inside the Sarries 22 before Bateman picked up ran in from 20 metres to score. Toomua’s extras made it 14-3 with 32 minutes played.
From the restart, Williams took a crashing fall as he tried to claim aerial ball. After treatment from the medical team, he left the field for a head injury assessment and play restarted with a scrum.
Tigers, though, were finding it difficult to clear fully and Sarries ran the ball back, being rewarded with a penalty for a tackle on Spencer on the Tigers 22. Spencer got up to kick the points and make it 6-14 with three minutes remaining in the half.
The response was almost immediate, though, with Veainu providing a fine finish for Tigers’ third try of the half.
Toomua made the initial break and the pass to his left shoulder found Veainu who broke through, checked left and then accelerated right again to dive over for his sixth try of the season.
Fly-half Toomua kicked his third conversion and, although there was still enough time to restart the game, Tigers managed to reclaim ball and bring the half to a close with a 15-point advantage.
Williams did not re-emerge for the second half, but Tigers started brightly again, retaining ball for the opening five minutes and almost manufactured a chance on the left, only for play to be called back for a forward pass from Veainu with the Sarries defence outnumbered.
Twelves minutes of the second period had gone when the home fans in a crowd of 9.772 had something to cheer when the Sarries forwards gained valuable ground and had Tigers defending on their own line. Their forwards pounded at the line before, eventually, Nathan Earle dived over on the right, with Holmes trying to wrap up man and ball.
The referee went to the TMO to look for grounding and the player’s position in relation to the touchline and decided no try. Advantage was being played, however, and play came back for a penalty. Sarries elected to go for the scrum and worked the ball to Earle again on the right. But, just as the crowd began to celebrate, the referee checked the grounding once more and confirmed that the wing had knocked-on.
From the resulting scrum, Tigers were awarded penalty and Toomua kicked up to the 10-metre line to provide a release.
Tom Youngs announced himself into the action with a big hit in midfield as Harrison box-kicked into Sarries territory, but it was the visitors’ turn to go through their defensive drills as Saracens retained ball on halfway for several minutes.
A scrum on the 22, though, provided a chance for Tigers, loosehead replacement Hayden Thompson-Stringer judged to have gone to ground. Toomua pushed the kicked across the posts and the lead stayed at 21-6 with an hour played.
Hamilton gained a superb turnover in the tackle on halfway as Tigers forced their rivals to play out from deep.
There were 65 minutes on the clock when Tigers grabbed a bonus-point score, Tuilagi capitalising on spilled ball in the Sarries half to hand off Marcelo Bosch and make his way up to the line before passing inside for Holmes to do down to the left of the posts. Toomua kicked the conversion as the lead reached 28-6.
Sarries finally got a try of their own when replacement Malins somehow wriggled his way through after a lineout on the left and Spencer added the kick to cut the deficit to 13-2 with 10 minutes remaining on the clock.
A big scrum on halfway, which brought a penalty, relieved the pressure and, importantly, ticked the clock down, as Toom,ua took play right up to the Sarries line. But, after setting up a drive, ball was wrapped up off the floor and Sarries had the put-in at the scrum.
Just five minutes remained, though, and the Tigers defence made sure their hosts had to work hard to get out of their own territory.
A penalty at a scrum on halfway, however, gave Malins the chance to push play down the left. Another penalty followed against Michele Rizzo as Sarries stayed in the corner. Rizzo was yellow-carded seconds later for collapsing a maul as time was played out five metres from the Tigers tryline.
Malins, though, found a gap again, running left and then right to score under the posts. A hasty conversion from Alex Lozowski made it 20-28 with 20 seconds left on the clock and, although, they had one more attack, they spilled ball on the Tigers 22 to signal the end of the game and five vital points.