Leicester Tigers took the maximum five points from a 29-23 victory over Connacht Rugby in the Heineken Champions Cup at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Sunday.
After both sides got off to a winning start in Round 1, it was Tigers who took the honours in Round 2, coming back from an eight-point deficit early in the second half to extend the team’s unbeaten run since the start of the season.
Tries from Nic Dolly and Bryce Hegarty in a spell around the 20-minute mark took Tigers 12-3 in front before a first Connacht try and then the visitors scored a breakaway second to lead by two points at half-time.
The visitors did land a last-gasp drop goal to ensure they had some consolation in the form of one point from their trip, but it was Tigers who protected their unbeaten run up to Christmas, making it 13 wins in a row in all competitions this season.
The second-round programme had been hit by a number of cancellations due to Covid and then the postponement of fixtures featuring French teams against UK opposition before Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off.
The changes also meant a call to Scottish referee Mike Adamson in place of the French officials who had been previously appointed and there was more upheaval shortly before kick-off when Tigers were instructed to wear their change shirts of white after a colour clash with their visitors.
So Ben Youngs led out a team in home shorts and socks beneath the change shirt of orange, white and black, and it was half-back partner Freddie Burns who got the game started in his first start at fly-half since his summer return to the club.
Connacht took an early lead with a Jack Carty penalty from 45 metres and indiscipline took its toll on Tigers with a number of promising positions ending with the whistle before referee Adamson also spoke to skipper Youngs about offsides in the backline defence.
As a result, the visitors enjoyed the majority of possession and territory in the opening stages of an hour and the clock reached 16 minutes before meaningful possession from Tigers in attack and it quickly led to the opening try for Dolly, his seventh of the season.
After taking play upfield with a penalty on the left, Youngs picked his way almost to the tryline from the lineout and Tigers were playing with a penalty advantage when the forwards recycled and the final pass found Dolly who dived into the corner.
Burns was off target with the conversion from the touchline and also missed a long-range penalty after the restart when Tommy Reffell won ball on the floor for the first but by no means last time in the afternoon.
A 50-metre break by Matt Scott got the crowd excited and brought a second score after strong work from Jasper Wiese stretched the defence on their own line and Hegarty ran through a gap for his first Tigers score. Burns added the conversion for a 12-3 lead with 23 minutes gone.
The visitors, though, celebrated their opening score just four minutes later with international centre Bundee aki combining with John Porch through midfield and the wing ran through to dot down next to the right-hand post. Carty added the conversion to cut the gap to just two points.
They threatened again with Cian Prendergast’s offload to Sam Arnold, but Leicester got back quickly and got over the ball to smother the possession and earn a penalty.
Wiese then won a valuable penalty over the ball as Connacht continued to look sharp in the attack.
But it was scrappy ball that brought the try which took them in front for the first time, Carty picking up spilled possession on halfway and having the pace to run away and dive in nest to the posts. He added the extras too as the half-time whistle went with the visitors 17-12 in front.
The mist started to clear as the temperature fell for the start of the second period and Connacht again dominated possession, though they were restricted to playing around the halfway line until a penalty for a deliberate knock-on gave Carty a chance of more points from the tee and he made it 20-12.
Steve Borthwick changed the front row on 51 minutes and they immediately won a scrum penalty which allowed Tigers to build a period of pressure in attack.
Bryce Hegarty moved to fly-half as Guy Porter replaced Burns in the backline and he prodded play into the left-hand corner where play remained through a series of penalties from a number of attacking scrums. Referee Adamson eventually produced a yellow card for Connacht prop Finlay Bealham after another infringement.
No8 Jarrad Butler made way to allow a replacement prop on for another scrum, with Aki adding his weight to the back row.
Tigers kept up the pressure from the set-piece and this time played out to the right and Dan Kelly cleverly released Steward to score against outnumbered backline opposotion.
Hegarty added the conversion to cut the deficit to a single point on 59 minutes and there was a fresh urgency as Tigers built on the momentum, Reffell winning another breakdown penalty to allow Hegarty to take play back upfield and the hosts made the most of it with a fourth try.
It started with a lineout drive almost up to the tryline on the left and, when Youngs opened up the attack, a gap appeared for Saumaki to run through and score.
Hegarty’s conversion kick made it 26-20 as Tigers claimed 14 points during the yellow card period.
Carty then over-hit a kick from hand which brought play back into the Connacht half for a Tigers scrum, and when the whistle went again, Hegarty made no mistake with the penalty in stretching the advantage to 29-20 with 10 minutes to go.
A penalty to the right-hand corner gave Connacht fresh hope of a fightback but they lost ball at the lineout as Wiese wrapped up possession. They then had a second – and last – chance in the same position and this time, Carty got into position to strike a drop goal which brought a losing bonus point with the final action of the game.