Leicester Tigers were beaten 16-25 by visitors Munster in Round 4 of the European Champions Cup at Welford Road on Sunday.
An early try from Mathew Tait after smart work by Graham Kitchener got Tigers off to a great start and they led 10-3 after quarter of an hour. But penalties started to mount up against the hosts as Munster enjoyed the bulk of possession and Ian Keatley was able to chip away at the lead until finally edging the visitors in front just before half-time.
A score from Munster No8 CJ Stander swing the impetus in the visitors’ favour with Tigers a man down at the start of the second half
Tigers fought their way back into the game at 16-19 but couldn’t find the next score in an enthralling arm-wrestle between two double European champions as the Irishmen added a couple of penalty kicks to leave their hosts empty-handed.
Munster recorded a 33-10 triumph at Thomond Park last weekend in the third round of fixtures in Pool 4 to take top spot in the group. Only five points separate all four teams going into the Round 4 weekend, making this another massive fixture at the home of the Tigers.
In team news announced on Friday afternoon, Tigers welcome back centres Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi, while Australia international hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is in line for his debut after being named among the replacements.
Munster include skipper Peter O’Mahony who has just announced a new three-year contract with the Irish Rugby Union, while Keith Earls returns to the matchday squad after injury.
After an emotional farewell to Tom Croft just ahead of kick-off, Tigers got off to a good start, taking the lead with a penalty less than two minutes into the game.
Tigers kicked off and were awarded an immediate lineout which brought the penalty and George Ford kicked the three points.
Aggressive defence forced two knock-ons by Munster on halfway in the opening few minutes, but Tigers were unable to take advantage as the first scrum brought a penalty to the visitors. They pumped the ball into the right-hand corner and, when Tigers contested the lineout, the referee blew for playing the man in the air.
Munster went to the corner again, but the Tigers forwards met the maul and stood up to consecutive phases before being penalised again for playing the scrum-half without the ball. Skipper Peter O’Mahony this time pointed to the posts and Ian Keatley levelled the scores with 10 minutes gone.
Tuilagi got his hands on the ball for the first time on 11 minutes in midfield and in the next phases Tigers had another penalty which Ford kicked down the left and it led to the opening try for Mathew Tait.
With Tigers opening play on the left, Graham Kitchener found Tait and suddenly a gap opened for the full-back and the dummy allowed him to run through and score his first of the season. Ford’s conversion made it 10-3 and had the home crowd in good voice.
Dan Cole looked unfortunate to be penalised at ruck on halfway following the restart but Keatley again put Munster into the Tigers 22.
After standing up to the lineout, another massive defence effort saw Munster held up with the ball in the centre of the field.
Tigers remained pinned inside their own half as Munster looked for a platform and the home defence stuck to task.
Referee Mathieu Raynal spoke to captain Tom Youngs and Cole after the Tigers tighthead conceded as third penalty in the opening 20 minutes as Munster began to build momentum in possession. Keatley knocked the kick over to reduce the deficit to four points at 10-6.
Logo Mulipola replaced Kyle Traynor with half an hour gone Tempers flared momentarily when Tigers were whistled for a late tackle on Conor Murray, and Keatley again went to the right-hand corner. Munster set up the drive and gained another penalty with Tigers on their own five-metre line.
Skipper Youngs was asked to have a word with the Tigers players as Keatley called for the tee and slotted his kick to make it 10-9 as the rain lashed Welford Road.
Tigers hearts fluttered with five minutes to go before half=time when Munster hacked ball towards the tryline from halfway, but Tait got back to recover and beat the first attacker to clear the anger.
There was time for one more attack, which brought a penalty for offside and Keatley put over the kick to put Munster in the lead for the first time, and worse was to follow when Cole was penalised again and the referee showed a yellow card as the clock reached 40 minutes.
Munster had another penalty as Kitchener and Tom Youngs contested a breakdown in front of the dugouts and this time, with the home crowd showing their displeasure, Conor Murray chose to kick from halfway but pushed it wide of the right-hand post as the half ended with the visitors 12-10 in front.
And they stretched the lead with a try at the start of the second half as CJ Stander forced his way over the line following a break by Murray. Referee Raynal checked with the TMO before awarding the try and Keatley kicked the extras as the visiting fans celebrated.
With the wind in Munster’s sails, Simon Zebo threatened down the left before Tait covered and cleared to touch.
Ford saw a chance to chip in behind the Munster backline as Tigers strove to get into opposition territory, but the ball bounced in front of Tuilagi who knocked on.
A fabulous counterattack by Jonny May from near his own line ended in the Munster 22, with Tuilagi making a big hit on Cloete as he wrapped up ball.
Tigers gained the throw, however, and the backing of a big crowd as they stormed forward, with Mapapalangi, Kalamafoni and skipper Youngs carrying purposefully. The whistle against scrum-half Murray brought a chance for Ford to have his first sight of goal since the 13th minute and he dispatched the kick to make it 13-19 on 52 minutes.
Mulipola led some resistance on halfway as Keatley miscued a kick into touch, and although Tigers were getting hands on the ball, possession was stuck in the middle third of the field.
Tatafu Polota-Nau ran out for his debut approaching the hour mark after a huger shift in the front row from Youngs, with Luke Hamilton replacing Mike Williams at flanker.
The hooker’s first involvement was an attacking lineout but, although he missed his man, there was a knock-on at the tail and Tigers had the scrum put-in. Tuilagi and Mulipola carried strongly but Munster stood up in defence until Ben Youngs had the ball knocked out of his hands at a ruck. After checking the replay, referee Raynal sin-binned replacement prop John Ryan and Ford kicked the points and Tigers were three points down at 16-19.
After Keatley put a drop-goal attempt wide, Munster returned to the attack and were rewarded with a penalty 35 metres out but the Irish fly-half pulled the kick wide.
Spilled ball in attack from Tigers allowed Munster to hack play 50 metres upfield and then had a scrum put-in but lost ball themselves on the Tigers 22.
Ford judged a kick from deep perfectly to put Munster on the defensive but they cleared their lines as the contest remained in the balance.
Munster picked off a Tigers lineout and then had a penalty when their maul was pulled down on the 22. This time Keatley made no mistake with the kick as his kick gave the Irishmen a six-point cushion.
They had the chance to go for another score with an attacking lineout, but Tigers escaped as ball was lost on the Minster right.
Moments later, though, Tigers were penalised 30 metres out and Keatley kicked to stretch the lead again at 16-25 with just three minutes left on the clock.
Tuilagi almost found his way to the line in time that remained but was tackled in the right-hand corner and the game ended on a knock-on near the Munster try line.