Leicester Tigers opened their return to the Heineken Champions Cup with a 16-13 win over Bordeaux-Bègles in France on Saturday afternoon.
Tigers were in front for a lot of the game after a first-half try from Guy Porter but it was a 77th minute kick from George Ford that finally proved to be the difference between two teams who are top of their respective domestic leagues.
In the first-ever meeting of the teams, Tigers led 10-3 halfway through the opening period after braving some early pressure and both teams played for a period with a man short – and both conceded a try in that spell with Bordeaux levelling the scores at 10-10 on the stroke of half-time with a converted try
Tigers, back in the Champions Cup after two seasons in Europe’s Challenge Cup tournament, included 11 players in the matchday squad at the Stade Chaban-Delmas making their debuts in this competition including wing Hosea Saumaki, scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet and new England international hooker Nic Dolly.
With Tigers in their traditional colours of green, white and red, the hosts in blue and white got the game under way in grey and cloudy conditions after a week of rain on the Atlantic coast.
A Bordeaux-Bègles team widely tipped to be among the favourites for European silverware this season, got the game under way and were almost immediately on to the scoreboard, with scrum-half Maxime Lucu kicking a penalty following an error from Tigers at a lineout.
But Tigers weathered some early pressure and teams chose to kick long to force their rivals to play from distance.
It was Porter who provided some go-forward as he carried play almost up to the tryline, but when Bordeaux handled ball at a ruck, Ford levelled the scores with the a penalty.
Bordeaux lost skipper Jefferson Poirot to injury as the game restarted and then had lock Kane Douglas yellow-carded for a high tackle on Ollie Chessum.
Tigers made the most of that advantage as they played their way into their attacking game, creating a score for Porter on 20 minutes following strong work at the breakdown and a clever link between Ford and Hegarty in possession.
Ford’s conversion made it 10-3 but Tigers then had to work hard in defence as Bordeaux’s heavyweight forwards carried up towards the line.
Douglas returned just before the half-hour mark with the crowd showing their frustration at proceedings on the pitch as Chessum forced a knock-on from Louis Picamoles at a set-piece.
Tigers patiently built more possession in the opposition half, winning penalties at scrum and lineout on the right, but then gave Bordeaux an escape route when Saumaki was guilty of tackling full-back Nans Ducuing in the air as he chased a kick from Ford and was shown a yellow card.
Ford missed with a long-range drop goal but it did help eat into the time played with a man down and then Harry Potter had to come Across from right to left wing to chase down a dangerous break from the hosts.
But when Tigers failed to clear their lines, Bordeaux kept ball in the hands of their forwards and, even when Trinh-Duc skewed his chip to the corner, they were playing with advantage and play came back for an attacking scrum with the clock into the last few seconds of the half.
This time they retained their composure on the ball until finally centre Jean-Baptiste Dubié scored under the posts and Lucu added the conversion to make it 10-10 at half-time.
Ford got the second half started and Potter thought he’d got a second try as he dived on loose ball in the right-hand corner. But after numerous replays, the officials determined that Porter had touched the ball with his hand and knocked-on in the build-up.
Tigers made good use of their field position, though, not allowing |Bordeaux out and then receiving a penalty award at a scrum to give Ford another shot at goal but this time he was wide with the kick.
Bordeaux had the next opportunity with a penalty on 52 minutes and Lucu kicked to put them ahead for the first time in the afternoon at 13-10 and when Tigers were blown up again in chasing the restart their rivals were able to take play upfield but Ben Lam was taken into touch.
Steve Borthwick sent on the experience of Dan Cole, Richard Wigglesworth and Kini Murimurivalu, but it was fellow replacement Marco van Staden who made an immediate impact as he smothered ball as Picamoles and Lucu threatened in attack.
French league leaders Bordeaux were building a head of steam and encouraging the home crowd, winning a couple of penalties to keep Tigers pinned back, though Lucu was off target with a 60th minute kick.
An error by replacement Ulupano Seuteni, knocking-on as he fielded a kick in his own 22, gave Tigers an unexpected opportunity and a penalty from the set-piece followed, which Ford kicked to make it all-square again at 13-13.
Matt Scott’s strength in defence blocked Bordeaux progress twice in as many minutes but there were some tired legs on a heavy pitch as the game headed into its final 10 minutes.
Scott was then first on to a clever chip ahead by Wigglesworth as Tigers pushed their hosts back towards their own line and a strong carry from Ellis Genge resulted in a penalty just inside the Bordeaux half, giving Ford the cue for a shot at goal.
Ford make no mistake from 45 metres to nudge his team in front at 16-13 and on the verg of an historic win in france.
Another penalty followed after Chessum made a nuisance of himself at a breakdown and Ford made sure play would go back into the Bordeaux half for the closing stages.
A scrum penalty near halfway with time elapsed provided one last hope for the hosts and their fans. They set up a drive on the mark of the 22-metre line and then had another penalty award, turning down the option of a kick for the posts and a share of the points to go into the left-hand corner.
Joseph Dweba’s throw set up one last chance but, when they got through a couple of phases, the Tigers defence stood firm until winning a penalty award of their own to bring the game to a close and take the four points back to the East Midlands.