Leicester Tigers were edged out 20-23 by Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup at Welford Road on Sunday.
Early tries from Henry Chavancy and Maxime Machenauid made it an uphill battle for Tigers in the final round of Pool 4 fixtures before three penalties from George Ford provided a foothold at 9-14 at half-time.
Then a try from Brendon O’Connor levelled scores at 14-14 in the opening stages of the second half and had the home crowd on their feet on a bitterly cold afternoon.
There was nothing to separate the teams for the rest of the second period as the kickers traded penalties and the score reached 20-20 with 70 minutes played before Machenaud landed the winning points just four minutes from the end.
While kick-off was delayed in the other pool fixture between Munster and Castres, Tigers got the Pool 4 action under way as scheduled at 1pm, just after snow had blanketed the pitch.
Tigers became only the third club – after Irish duo Leinster and Munster – to reach 150 games in European Cup rugby and it was also a landmark day for prop Dan Cole who made his 50th appearance in European Cup rugby, though there was a late change for the home side as Gareth Owen stepped in to replace Manu Tuilagi who had a calf muscle injury.
Racing, who this week had nine players included in the France squad ahead of the Six Nations, make just a couple of changes to the side that lost narrowly to Munster in Round 5 and bring All Blacks legend Dan Carter on to the bench.
Tigers had an early glimpse of a chance after a strong carry from Sione Kalamafoni, but Owen took contact on a nice line just as he caught the pass on the ball fell loose for Racing to clear up to halfway.
Racing, though, made the breakthrough after a penalty in Tigers territory on six minutes. They put the kick into the right-hand corner to set up a lineout drive and it was centre Henry Chavancy who was in control as they got over the tryline. Maxime Machenauid added the kick from the right for a seven-point lead.
The French side looked for a repeat just a few minutes later, but after Tigers had kept out the set-piece, they knocked on just five metres out and set up the first scrum of the contest.
The ball squirted out from the base of the scrum, however, and referee Nigel Owens confirmed the try after consultation with the TMO, Machenaud getting the decisive touch just ahead of Jonny May. The scrum-half also added the extras for a 14-0 lead.
George Ford got Tigers off the mark with a penalty in the 17th minute after a promising backline move in which Nick Malouf had provided valuable go-forward in the opposition 22.
Tigers were back on the defensive as Racing exploited space on their right but May made a trysaving tackle on Virimi Vakatawa who was then penalised as he held on to the ball.
The next period of the game was fought on the Tigers 10-metre line, both forward packs making clean possession difficult for the opposition half-backs, before Ford produced a 50-metre clearance up the right-hand touchline.
After some aggressive defence in the Racing half, Tigers won back ball and had a penalty after Owen was tackled high 35 metres out. Ford called for the tee. The fly-half’s struck the kick well and made it 6-14 on the half-hour.
A lineout steal from Graham Kitchener looked to provide a platform for Tigers on their own 10-metre line but Ben Youngs put his box-kick straight out and Racing had another opportunity from the set-piece before the Tigers defence forced another handling error.
Loose ball in midfield allowed Vakatawa some space but Owen recovered well to bring him down and then Brendon O’Connor’s work at the breakdown forced a penalty as Tigers returned to Racing territory. At the next breakdown, referee Owens signalled another penalty to the home side and Ford knocked over another three-pointer.
Racing led 14-9 at half-time, but Tigers came back out positively, and with the home support behind them after Ford chipped an early second-half penalty into the left-hand corner, they had more to cheer when Brendon O’Connor scored a try from the big forward drive. Scores were level and stayed that way as Ford fell short with the conversion attempt.
A clever crosskick from Ford had the crowd hoping for more when May fell awkwardly under a challenge from Brice Dulin, but the referee determined there was no foul play from the French full-back.
A penalty in the 54th minute gave Machenaud the chance to put Racing ahead again at 14-17, and before play could restart Dan Carter was sent on at fly-half for Remi Tales.
The Tigers defence showed exactly what they are made of as Racing tried to build through their forwards, only to be met by stubborn and forceful resistance. which eventually forced a knock-on.
Tom Youngs, Logovi’i Mulipola and mike Fitzgerald joined the pack for the resulting scrum and Tigers pushed play back up to the 10-metrre line.
The defensive line had to go through the same drill all over again against the Racing pack and again forced an error. But they were finding it tough to gain any territory until |Cole’s work at the breakdown earned a penalty up at halfway. Rokocoko then looked to have misjudged the kick upfield but referee Owens signalled play on.
Ford brought the scores level again at 17-17 on 65 minutes with a 40-metre penalty after Carter had been whistled.
O’Connor felt he was harshly penalised for not releasing in the tackle as he won turnover ball 30 metres out but Machenaud seized the opportunity to kick Racing into a three-point lead as the game entered its final 10 minutes.
Moments later an offside call allowed Ford to reply again and there was parity once more at 20-20.
The Tigers front row were then penalised on their own 22-metre line and Machenaud made sure with his third penalty of the second half.
A crosskick in his own half from Ford found Owen on the left and as he kicked ahead May wrapped up Teddy Thomas on his own goalline, giving Tigers a precious chance from a five-metre scrum.
With the crowd at their backs, Tigers earned a free-kick from an early drive by the Racing pack and the scrum was re-set. This time the whistle blew for a penalty with Racing guilty of ‘running round;’ and the packs came together again. But when play opened up, Racing got over the top of the ball and won a decisive penalty to bring the game to a close.