Leicester Tigers ran in seven tries in a 54-29 bonus-point win over Castres Olympique in Pool 4 of the European Champions Cup at Welford Road on Saturday.
Tigers claimed a first-half bonus point in the first-ever meeting of the two teams with tries from Telusa Veainu (2), Jonny May and Ben Youngs.
And Veainu completed his hat-trick on 50 minutes with May again on the mark in the second half to go with a score from Nick Malouf.
But the visitors, who opened with a draw against Munster in Round 1 while Tigers were beaten by Racing 92 in Paris, claimed a try bonus point of their own with four second-half scores, three from wing David Smith.
The five match points, combined with a 14-7 win for Munster over Racing in Limerick, took Tigers to the top of Pool 4 ahead of the head-to-head rounds when the competition resumes in December.
Gareth Owen and Valentino Mapapalangi were drafted into the Tigers team in place of Matt Smith and Mike Williams, who is serving a one-game ban, in the only changes to the team from the Round 1 trip to Racing. Sam Harrison returned to the matchday squad in place of Ben White after sitting out the game in France last week.
Tigers kicked off and were immediately on the scoreboard with a Ford penalty after Castres had been whistled for a high tackle on Matt Toomua on the 10-metre line.
Castres, though, levelled the scores within five minutes after blocking a Tigers exit from a defensive lineout and then keeping the pressure on with heavy runners on the fringes of the ruck. Tigers were eventually penalised and Rory Kockott kicked from the tee.
Ford made it 6-3 on 10 minutes when Castres were caught offside inside their own 22 as Sione Kalamafoni and Mapapalangi carried strongly.
Castres again went direct at the restart, before Tom Youngs dropped on loose ball inside the Tigers 22 and gained put-in at the scrum as he disappeared below a pile of bodies.
A superbly timed tackle from Malouf and Kalamafoni then got Tigers on to the front foot, creating turnover ball and an opportunity for Veainu to counter-attack before Castres again fell foul of the referee’s whistle. Ford struck the penalty down the middle from 35 metres to make it 9-3 on 14 minutes.
The first try – and a sensational one from the home side – came from the next phase of play with May again the man with the finish.
Ford began the attack inside his own 22 and Owen took play up near halfway, but the breakthrough came from Mapapalangi’s superb offload out of the tackle on the left wing which put Kalamafoni in possession. The Tongan No8 kicked ahead from the touchline and May showed his pace to win the race to the ball, pick up and dive over the line in one movement to bring Welford Road to its feet.
Ford’s conversion from wide on the left made the score 16-3 with 16 minutes gone.
Owen’s debut lasted only another couple of minutes, though, before he made way for Mathew Tait and the replacement was quickly into the action in attack before Ellis Genge made a run into the heart of the Castres defence which ended with another Tigers penalty.
This time, Ford opted to go to the right-hand corner and, although Graham Kitchener made a safe catch and set up a maul with Tom Youngs on the ball, Castres managed to block the push and gained the put-in at a five-metre scrum when the maul went to ground.
Tigers were not to be denied for long, however, as a second try arrived from scrum-half Youngs.
The move began in the Tigers half of the field again, with Malouf carrying back at Castres, then May and Tait taking play on before Genge made another charge into the opposition 22. With the referee playing penalty advantage, Tigers recycled quickly and Youngs darted through next to the right-hand post. Ford added the kick to make it 23-3.
And the home support was in full voice with a third try just moments later, with Tom Youngs making a 50-metre break in possession from his own 22 and then Genge high-stepping his way through and over defenders towards the tryline before Hamilton was cut down just a handful of metres out. But the ball came back again and this time Veainu slipped past his tackler and ran in unopposed on the right.
Ford’s conversion attempt hit the inside of the left-hand post and bounced out, but at 28-3 Tigers were three-quarters of the way towards a bounce-point score with just half an hour played.
That fourth score came on 35 minutes with Veainu this time latching on to smart work at the breakdown from skipper Youngs before stepping his way to the line, diving in under the posts at the Mattioli Woods Stand end. Ford’s extras made it 35-3.
There was no addition to the score before half-time, though Matt Toomua received lengthy treatment for a knock before being replaced by Joe Ford at the interval.
May’s ninth try of the season came just two minutes into the second half – on the back of two minutes of possession by Castres inside the Tigers half.
Strong work in defence from Dan Cole created the pressure on the ball and Tait was able to break away, popping a pass for May to run in from 30 metres. George Ford added the conversion as the lead reached 42-3.
Tigers were quickly back on the attack, with Malouf making the most of possession on the left, and Kalamafoni stopped just short of the line on the right. but the forwards kept the ball alive at the breakdown and Tait was able to find Veainu on the right to wriggle his way over for the team’s sixth score of the afternoon and his third of a productive afternoon.
Joe Ford took over the kicking and thumped his kick from the right touchline but was just wide as Tigers led 47-3. Referee George Clancy also took the opportunity to speak to Castres about their discipline.
Ironically, it was the Tigers defence that fell foul of the referee a minute later with Mapapalangi yellow-carded after bringing down a driving maul from Castres which looked bound for the tryline.
The visitors got their reward when No8 Alex Tulou came through their driving maul from alineout to score. Kockott added the conversion to make it 47-10 with still 28 minutes to play.
Joe Ford provided the scoring pass for Tigers' seventh try, with Malouf working his way to the line on the left for his fourth score of the season and to take the team past the half-century mark. Joe Ford added the conversion to make it 54-10.
Mapapalangi returned from the sin-bin with 62 minutes played, but the final 20 minutes saw Castres claim an unlikely bonus point with a hat-trick of tries from Smith.
The visitors managed to make the most of spilled ball in their own half to create a score for wing Smith, just getting into the left corner, with Kockott kicking the conversion.
It was Tigers’ turn to get through their work in defence and, with a tap penalty providing quick ball, Smith added a second on 72 minutes, just finding enough room on the left and Kockott kicked the conversion as the visitors worked their way within reach of a bonus-point score of their own.
Smith then made it a hat-trick with more smart work in the left-hand corner after a lineout drive, though Kockott’s conversion came back out off the post as the Tigers lead was cut to 54-29 with two minutes remaining.