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.
Thank you for your support
Thank you to all Tigers fans for your support, especially those who braved the arctic conditions at Welford Road.
Congratulations to Racing
Congratulations to Racing 92, who will qualify for the knockout stages as at least one of the best runners-up. They could even top the group, depending on events in Limerick where kick-off has been postponed until 4pm.
Racing hold on for victory
The Racing scrum holds up, and it is all a bit frantic as Tigers try to work the space. Eventually O'Connor is isolated and gives up the penalty. Racing celebrate as Machenaud finds touch. They win 23-20
Time is up
A free-kick, and a penalty later, and Tigers pot to scrum again.
5m scrum. Tigers put in. Welford Road in full voice. Come on boys.
Last chance for Tigers
A lovely move out of defence, Ford finding Owen on the left, who kicks ahead. Thomas fields and is dragged into his own in-goal by May. Tigers scrum 5m out.
Racing lead again
Machenaud's kick puts Racing three-points ahead. Can Tigers respond one more time?
Is this the game for Racing?
Tigers are pinged at a scrum on their 22 and Machenaud has this kick to put them in front with less than five minutes to go ...
All square. Again!
Ford's kick goes through the middle to bring Tigers level again. Tigers 20 Racing 20
Instant chance to hit back
Bois Palu is offside in midfield and Ford has another 40m penalty to bring Tigers level
Racing regain the lead
Tom Youngs brings down Nakarawa, and O'Connor completes the tackle and wins possession. However, he is pinged for not releasing and Machenaud kicks Racing ahead. They lead 20-17.
Ford lands the penalty from a central position to bring Tigers level again. Into the last 15 minutes at Welford Road it is 17-17.
No quarter given
An unrelenting period of the game, with both sides hammering away at each other, ends with Tigers winning a penalty on the Racing 10m line.
Great D from Tigers
Tigers stand up to the Racing forwards and force the knock-on. It's a signal for Mulipola, Fitzgerald and Tom Youngs to enter the fray for Bateman, Williams and Polota-Nau
Racing introduce Dan Carter from the bench. He replaces Remi Tales at fly-half.
Machenaud makes no mistake
Machenaud lands the penalty to give Racing their first points since the 12th minute to put the French side 17-14 ahead
O'Connor on the wrong side
O'Connor is pinged for not rolling away and Racing have a simple penalty to retake the lead ...
Has May been taken in the air, there/
Ford kicks wide to May, who climbs above Teddy Thomas. Thomas takes out May, who gets back to his feet. Referee Nigel Owens reviews the incident and deems there was no offence, to the home fans' astonishment
Tigers are roaring
Kitchener leads the kick-chase and pins Nakarawa, whose offload is knocked on by Machenaud under pressure. Tigers scrum just inside the Racing half
The try goes unconverted, but Tigers have dragged themselves level at 14-14 after trailing 14-0 in the opening quarter.
What a kick from Ford, deep into the 22. Kitchener sets it up and O'Connor finishes. Welford Road finds its voice. Great stuff!
Early penalty for Tigers
Nakarawa is spotted taking out Mike Williams in a lineout. Ford looks at the posts but opts for territory ...
Good start from Tigers
Tigers have started the second-half well. May's kick-chase ended with Tigers turning over possession from Nakarawa before Young's box kick puts them into the Racing 22.
The teams are back out
Racing 92 are first back onto the pitch followed by George Ford and the Tigers. Tigers will receive the kick-off attacking the Mattioli Woods Stand end.
Cole named Player of the Month
Congratulations to Dan Cole who, on the occasion of his 50th European Champions Cup appearance for Tigers, has been named the Lumbers Player of the Month. Well done Coley!
A half of two halves
Tigers have responded well to Racing 92's two early tries, and George Ford has kicked three penalties to bring them back into the contest. Tigers trail 14-9 at the break.
Half-time at Welford Road
Tigers defence forces Machenaud into a mistake as the scrum-half kicks out on the full. But Tigers are forced backwards themselves by the Racing defence and Jonny May's knock-on signals half-time.
Ford lands the kick
Ford makes it look easy as he slots his third penalty of the game. Tigers trail 14-9.
Tigers penalty attempt
Brendon O'Connor latches on to Dulin, who is pinged for holding on. A second penalty comes as Racing infringe at the lineout. Ford to go for the post ...
The snow is turning to rain and is coming down heavily making playing conditions even more difficult for the two teams.
Kitch soars high
Graham Kitchener steals the Racing lineout but Ben Youngs's box kick has too much on it. Good signs from Tigers in the second quarter, though.
Ford lands the penalty
Ford is kicking really well and punishes Virimi Vakatawa's high tackle on Owen with three points. Tigers now trail 14-6.
Even better from Ford
Tigers stand up well in defence and force Racing to kick. Ford returns it with interest to put them back onto their 22. Tigers win the lineout and now have penalty advantage for a high tackle on Owen
After Ford and Brice Dulin exchange kicks, Ford finds a lovely touch on halfway. Racing win the lineout and are on the attack again.
Good work Wellsy
Good work by Cole and Harry Wells make the ball unplayable at a Racing lineout midway inside the Leicester half. Tigers with the scrum put-in.
Tigers on the board
... George Ford lands the kick to give Tigers their first points. Racing lead 14-3
Tigers on the attack
A lovely move off a scrum allows Nick Malouf to make ground into the Racing 22. The visitors go off their feet giving Tigers the penalty ...
Machenaud adds the extras
Machenaud completes the scoring with the conversion. Racing lead 14-0.
The ball squirted out of the scrum, Youngs and Machenaud reacted but it was the Racing scrum-half who got the touch in-goal.
Referee Nigel Owens goes to his TMO to check whether Racing have a second try from the scrum. Machenaud and Youngs going for the ball together but who has got the touch?
Tigers breath again
Racing threaten again from another close-ranmge lineiout. Machenaud's snipe is spotted by Dan Cole, before his offload is knocked on 5m short. Tigers with the scrum put-in
Maxime Machenaud, the Racing scrum-half, adds the extras to put Racing 7-0 ahead.
Try to the visitors
Leone Nakarawa sets up the maul from the lineout, and with backs joining in it is centre Henry Chavancy who dots down.
Penalty to Racing
A huge mismatch in midfield where Ben Tameifuna ruins at George Ford before Brendon O'Connor looks to have stripped Yannick Nyanga but is pinged for hands on the floor
It's a cagey opening few minutes as the teams suss each other out and get a feel for the conditions underfoot
George Ford gets the game underway, with Tigers attacking the Robin Hood Stand end of the ground.
The teams are out
George Ford leads out the Tigers at a snowy Welford Road for this afternoon's Champions Cup ROund 6 fixture. Good luck boys!
Confirmed Racing team
Racing 92: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Rémi Tales, 9 Maxime Machenaud (c); 1 Eddy Ben Arous, 2 Camille Chat, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 5 Manuel Carizza, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 7 Yannick Nyanga, 8 Leone NakarawaReplacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vasil Kakovin, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Baptiste Chouzenoux, 20 Boris Palu, 21 Teddy Iribaren, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Louis Dupichot
Confirmed Tigers team
Tigers: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Nick Malouf, 13 Gareth Owen, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford (c), 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Greg Bateman, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Harry Wells, 5 Graham Kitchener, 6 Mike Williams, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 8 Sione Kalamafoni Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Logovi’i Mulipola, 19 Mike Fitzgerald, 20 Valentino Mapapalangi, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Joe Ford, 23 Adam Thompstone
The scene at Welford Snow-ed!
Welford Road is all set and ready to go. Kick-off is five minutes away
The confirmed teams. A change from the declared team for Tigers at 13, where Manu Tuilagi has a tight calf and is not risked and Gareth Owen starts.
Welcome to a wintry Welford Road
Welford Road is the setting for Tigers' final Pool 4 fixture in this season's European Champions Cup against French giants Racing 92.