Leicester Tigers staged a late fightback to snatch a 29-28 victory and the bonus point against Connacht in the third round of the Heineken Champions Cup on Saturday.
The victory, achieved with two tries in the last eight minutes including one in the closing seconds from replacement Hosea Saumaki, secured progress to the Round of 16 with 14 points from the opening three games in Europe’s premier cup competition.
It also meant three wins in a row in the competition for the first time since 2015/16 on the club’s first visit to The Sportsground in Galway since a pre-season fixture in 2005.
Tigers won the first meeting of the teams 29-23 at Christmas and the rematch was just as much of a rollercoaster as they raced into a 10-point lead in the opening 10 minutes but then conceded 28 unanswered points before finally wrestling back control in the late stages.
Jasper Wiese returned to the Tigers forward pack following a two-match ban and Fiji international Kini Murimurivalu was given a start on the wing – where he scored two crucial tries – after providing cover in the back row in recent weeks. Academy graduate Tom Manz was included as second-row cover on the bench for the first time.
The opening score came after just three minutes, with Tigers kicking off and penning their rivals back before Heyes forced his way over for his first try in his 87th appearance for the club.
Connacht had already been penalised twice as Tigers mauled towards the tryline and, with the referee signalling advantage again, prop Heyes picked up and drove over for the score.
Play remained in and around the Irish 22 and, even when they had put-in ball at a scrum and a chance to play out, they were whistled at the set-piece. The free-kick went Tigers’ way and skipper Ellis Genge had no hesitation in calling for the teams to pack down again.
On a cloudy and cold but calm Galway afternoon, Tigers used that scrum to create try number two, Freddie Burns measuring the crosskick to Murimurivalu and he powered over despite the tackle attempt from full-back Tiernan O’Halloran.
Burns was just off target with the conversion before Connacht got their first attack going down the right and, although flanker Conor Oliver could not find his support, they had a penalty but Jack Carty kicked wide.
Connacht had a stroke of fortune moments later as a chip through was deflected in flight – as it had been in Wasps’ score in Coventry last weekend – to play everyone onside and they made best use of the situation to set up a forward drive and then, with referee signalling a penalty, putting O’Halloran in space to run in under the posts for their opening points.
Carty added the conversion to bring it back to 7-10 with a quarter of an hour played.
An error allowed Connacht forward again and they continued to build pressure through the forwards on the left, using a couple of penalties to build set-piece play in the corner and, although Tigers forced one maul into touch 10 metres out and then wrapped up possession at the next, they still could not get out cleanly.
A scrum was greeted with another whistle, the verdict going against the Tigers front row, and when Connacht kept the ball tight with the forwards, they eventually found a position for flanker Cian Prendergast to score near the posts from a popped pass by Bundee Aki. Carty added the conversion to make it 14-10 as the Irishmen got in front for the first time.
Murimurivalu was among Tigers’ most prominent carriers, taking play 50 metres up the left and leaving two defenders on the floor, before showing similar strength out of defence after ball had been hacked ahead.
But Tigers failed to build on some promising field position as Genge was met by a group of defenders near the posts and then successive passes in the backs missing the man out wide.
Three minutes from the break, Tigers attacked on the left and twice had set-piece position but made a misjudgement at a lineout and Connacht survived a final scrum to get the ball out and head for the dressing rooms 14-10 in front.
An offside penalty within 90 seconds of the restart had Tigers back in their 22 again and it quickly turned into a third conceded score after a yellow card for Tommy Reffell for offside just in front of the tryline.
Connacht kept ball there and worked it to scrum-half Kieran Marmion who found his way to the line and Carty’s conversion stretched the lead to 21-10.
They threatened again with John Porch on the right wing and the territory-gain was rewarded with a fourth score after quick ball across the backline gave O’Halloran his second try. Carty’s extras made it 28-10 with 48 minutes gone.
A scrum penalty to Tigers signalled a flare-up among the forwards and referee Raynal spoke to both captains before play restarted with Tigers set-piece ball midway inside their rivals’ 22 but they lost control again and were soon pushed back downfield.
Tigers produced their best spell in attack since the opening stages on the 55-minute mark to bring a second score of the day for Murimurivalu.
Dan Kelly made the initial break on halfway and Murimurivalu linked with Bryce Hegarty and Richard Wigglesworth to take play up towards the tryline. Then Freddie Steward got close on the opposite side before ball came to the left again and the Fijian wing forced his way in. The extras from Burns brought it back to 28-17 with 20 minutes still to play.
Positive carries from Genge and Jasper Wiese drove Tigers forward again and they almost found a way through as Kelly attacked through the middle but his team-mates were held up over the tryline.
The drop-out kick from Connacht brought Wiese and Genge back on to the ball and Reffell then went agonisingly close to a rty as he charged down a clearing kick, only for the ball to squirm out of his grasp on the floor within five metres of the whitewash.
The flanker recovered to then rip ball out of the hands of Connacht back-rower Paul Boyle as he ran off the back of the scrum and then heard the whistle in Tigers’ favour at the breakdown.
The position was a perfect one for Harry Wells to set up the lineout drive and his colleagues responded with a big push for Clare to score. It not only provided at least one point but, with Burns adding the conversion from out wide, brought them to within four points on the scoreboard at 28-24.
The bounce of the ball from a chip from Burns beat defender Tom Farrell but a relieved O’Halloran recovered to put into touch with Tigers chasing another score and a remarkable climax to the action.
Clare steered another strong maul forwards, Genge carried again and, with a penalty advantage in front of the posts, Tigers played their hand and spread play quickly to the left where Kelly threw a long pass for Saumaki to hit the line at pace and provide an incredible finish for the winning score.
The home crowd, restricted to an attendance of just 3,064 by the government's Covid guidelines on gatherings and with just a handful from Tigers, did not like it, and neither did a number of their players but the referee checked replays to confirm the wing’s foot had stayed infield as he planted the ball one-handed into the corner.
Burns was unable to add the conversion but it did not matter with time up and the points on the board which ensured progress in the competition and a bounce-back from a first defeat of the season last weekend.