Leicester Tigers took two points from a 41-35 defeat at Wasps in Round 3 of the Gallagher Premiership campaign on Sunday despite playing half of the game a man short.
Two early tries gave the hosts a 14-point advantage before Jonny May dotted down his third try of the season for Tigers.
Nathan Hughes added a third for Wasps but George Ford’s place-kicking kept Tigers in the hunt before Telusa Veainu scored his first try of the season to cut the deficit to 22-18.
Tigers, though, then lost lock Will Spencer to a red card for a high hit on Tommy Taylor and Wasps ended the half 25-18 in front.
A superb start to the second period from the 14-man Tigers gave them the lead with Ford kicking a penalty and then converting a try from Sione Kalamafoni, and the scores kept coming, with De Jongh and May each adding their second of the day to claim bonus points for their respective sides and the game was tied at 35-35 with 13 minutes remaining. Lima Sopoaga added two late kicks to give Wasps the victory.
The teams went into the game with one win and one defeat – both beaten by Exeter Chiefs – in the opening weeks of the campaign, and with Tigers chasing a first win on Wasps soil since their first visit to Coventry in May 2015.
In team news announced on Friday, Guy Thompson replaced the injured Brendon O’Connor in the Tigers back row, making his first start for the club against his former team-mates, while there were landmark appearances for Dan Cole (200 games) and Manu Tuilagi (100 starts). With England Under-20s quartet Ben White, Tom Hardwick, Jordan Olowofela and Joe Heyes among the replacements, Geordan Murphy included 12 academy graduates in the 23 for his first away game in charge as interim head coach.
Tigers included four survivors of their win in Coventry three years ago – Adam Thompstone, Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole – while there were eight in the Wasps squad including England international duo Joe Launchbury and Elliot Daly.
Wasps gave summer signing Sopoaga a first start at fly-half but were without England back-rower Brad Shields who suffered a fractured cheekbone against the Chiefs last week.
Cole and Tuilagi ran out at the head of the Tigers team, wearing the club’s alternate white and purple kit, and it was Wasps who got the game under way. They enjoyed some good early possession too, with Veainu twice having to make tackles on their ball-carriers, before Tigers broke out and threatened a the other end with Tuilagi, Thompson and Spencer carrying dangerously.
Wasps were kept close to their line from a lineout but Tigers spilled ball just short of the tryline as the forwards put the pressure on their rivals.
Eight minutes had elapsed before Wasps returned to halfway, but a misplaced pass in the Tigers backline almost provided a chance until Tuilagi took Christian Wade down and then the hosts knocked-on.
It was Wasps, though, who made the breakthrough, though there was an element of good fortune in the score for centre Juan de Jongh.
When Tigers kicked clear, Elliot Daly looked to return it with interest, only for his shallow kick to catch Veainu full in the face near halfway. From the bounce, Wasps were away upfield and some quick hands put Josh Bassett and then Dan Robson away before the offload for De Jongh to dive in. Sopoaga made it a seven-point score with the conversion.
Bassett almost latched on to a long pass from Ben Youngs after the restart, only to knock-on as he reached for ball in front of Adam Thompstone.
A second score for the hosts followed on 15 minutes when brisk work on the right almost put Wade in, but they recycled infield and Daly’s chip to the left put Bassett in to score. This time Sopoaga added the kick from the left touchline as the lead reached 14 points.
Tigers, though, hit back immediately, building possession up front before Ford took ball up to the line and put a perfect kick in behind for May to score in the right-hand corner. The conversion flew just wide.
The restart took play back into the Tigers 22 as Gareth Owen knocked-on and, after Ben Youngs had halted the progress of N08 Nathan Hughes from the base of the scrum, Tigers were penalised and then to withstand a period of pressure on the tryline before Hughes finally forced his way over. Sopoaga missed the conversion from the right of the posts as Wasps led 19-5 with 25 minutes played.
Ford chipped into the deficit with a penalty from 25 metres on 27 minutes and he had a second opportunity three minutes when Michael Le Bourgeois was whistled at the tackle zone just beyond his own 10-metre line. Ford struck it well and the ball was still rising as it sailed through the posts to make the score 19-11.
The end-to-end action continued as Tigers were penalised in their own 22 and referee Ian Tempest reviewed a tackle from Dan Cole on Robson as he took the tap but decided no further sanction was necessary as play came back for a kick at the posts from 23 metres. Sopoaga chipped it over to take the lead out to 11 points.
Veainu poached his first try of the season, getting on the end of some neat work in attack from Ford, after carries from Williams and Tom Youngs, and diving in under the posts. The conversion brought it back to 22-18 with 100 seconds left on the 40 minutes.
Tigers cleared their lines and forced a knock-on near halfway, only for the TMO to draw attention to a Will Spencer tackle on Tommy Taylor. His decision was contact had been shoulder to head and issued a red card with 40 seconds remaining on the clock.
Full-back Daly called for the kicking tee a metre inside his own half and judged the penalty well as he made it 25-18 at the break.
The 14 men of the Tigers got the second period under way with no further changes to the line-ups, and Tigers had an early opportunity when, despite losing lineout ball, they were awarded a penalty on the Wasps 22 when Wade was whistled at the breakdown. Ford struck it well from the tee to take Tigers to within four points of their rivals.
Another penalty followed when Thompstone claimed a Youngs kick on the right wing, only to be brought down with an arm around the neck. Ford pushed play down the right and referee Tempest blew again when Wasps collapsed a promising maul.
The Tigers fly-half thumped the second penalty into the right-hand corner with the travelling support in full voice. Another whistle followed at the lineout, Hughes playing his rival in the air.
Again Ford kicked into the corner, again Mike Williams secured ball, again Tigers set up a maul. The whistle blew once more and Hughes was sin-binned.
With the sides level at 14 men each, a superb charge for the line by Kalamafoni put Tigers in front for the first time, despite the attentions of several tacklers. Ford made it 25-28 with the extras.
Wasps lost prop Ben Harris to injury in the scoring phase and then fell foul of the referee at the restart as Tigers claimed ball. Instead of being in their own 22, Ford kicked up the touchline, but Launchbury stole the lineout.
The lead lasted five minutes before De Jongh claimed a solo score, cutting in from the left with the Tigers defence outnumbered 35 metres out and then finding a line to the posts for the bonus-point score. The conversion from Sopoaga made it 32-28.
A minute later, Ford made good use of front-foot ball and popped a pass to May in support as he added his second try of the day to claim a bonus point too. Ford quickly added the kick and Tigers were ahead 35-32.
Jordan Olowfoela replaced Thompstone as play got under way again, with Hughes back from his yellow card in the Wasps back row, but referee Tempest’s unpopularity with the home crowd grew when he brought play back for a Tigers scrum near halfway. With a man short up front, Olowofela packed down at flanker and Tigers quickly got the ball into play, gaining another penalty for offside just inside their rivals’ half of the field.
Ford, with three penalties and three conversions up to that point, struck the right-hand post with the kick and the score remained 35-32 in his side’s favour.
Wasps overloaded their left as they threatened a break, but the Tigers defence kept them out until replacement David Feao was penalised at the tackle area 35 metres out and Sopoaga levelled the scores with the kick to set up an intriguing final 13 period of the game.
A huge moment in the context of the game followed when Sopoaga eyed a gap close in and dived over the line, only for Ben Youngs and Thompson to combined in a hit and forced the ball loose over the tryline.
Wasps were beginning to use their numerical advantage as they played through the phases and stretched the defence across the pitch. A penalty award 35 metres out gave Sopoaga another shot at goal and his kick made it 38-35.
Joe Heyes replaced Cole for his first taste of Premiership rugby as the game restarted, with fellow academy graduates Jimmy Stevens and Ben White also entering the action.
There was no let-up in the action, though a scrum penalty in Wasps favour on their own 10-metre line gave them some breathing space as Sopoaga kicked down the right with a little over two minutes remaining.
They retained ball in hand in Tigers territory and gained reward with a penalty which Sopoaga knocked over for a six-point lead, though referee Tempest did warn the hosts the game would still restart with a matter of seconds left. Launchbury made sure as he caught the restart kick and Robson kicked out to seal the victory.