Leicester Tigers claimed a five-try win over the Scarlets to get off the mark in Pool 4 of the Heineken Champions Cup at Welford Road on Friday evening.
The forwards provided the impetus in a 45-27 win with tries from Harry Wells, Guy Thompson and Sione Kalamafoni, and backs Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May added two more in the last quarter of an enthralling contest.
On an evening which marked the 22nd anniversary of the club’s first home game in European competition, Wells claimed a try on his 50th appearance for the club as the hosts raced into a 10-0 lead in the opening 10 minutes.
Scarlets got back into the game with a try from scrum-half Gareth Davies and levelled terms soon afterwards, but back-rower Thompson added a second for Tigers who led 15-13 at the break.
The Kalamafoni try initially provided some daylight between the teams, but Scarlets were not done and fought back to lead 27-25 with scores from Steff Evans and Davies again on the hour.
Tuilagi, though, provided a powerful finish for a bonus-point score and then May ran in try number five inside the last 10 minutes.
Both teams lost in their competition opener last weekend and, in full knowledge that points will have to be hard-earned in such a tight and competitive pool, they produced an open and entertaining contest at Welford Road.
The Scarlets, who had been beaten on their only two previous visits to the venue, included British & Irish Lions trio Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies and Ken Owens in their line-up, and there was a place for Tigers academy graduate Tom Price in the second row. Tigers brought in May and Graham Kitchener after injury and welcomed back Will Spencer after suspension. But skipper Tom Youngs was ruled out of the announced team, with Tatafu Polota-Nau stepping into the No2 shirt and Jake Kerr taking a place on the bench for his first involvement in a European tie.
George Ford took over the captaincy and led out the team before Scarlets got the game under way, playing towards the Mattioli Woods Stand end. Jonah Holmes, called up by Wales for the first time this week, made a safe catch from the kick and Tigers showed some real purpose in the opening moments, winning a penalty just inside the visitors’ half as Scarlets held on to possession on the floor.
Ford judged his place-kick to perfection to give Tigers a 3-0 lead and take his total beyond 100 points for the season.
A big carry from Polota-Nau then gave Ford a chance to probe for space wide on the left, but Jordan Olowofela just couldn’t gather cleanly.
Seconds later the young wing was even closer to the line. After Tuilagi found some space on the right, Tigers quickly spread play to the opposite flank but the Scarlets covered in defence and forced him into touch just a couple of metres short.
Scarlets failed to secure safe ball from successive lineouts and from one free-kick Ford inspired the breakthrough with a spiralling kick into the opposition 22. Kyle Eastmond won the contest to the bouncing ball and Tigers hammered at the line for a couple of phases before Wells forced his way over. Ford’s simple conversion pushed the hosts 10 points in front with eight minutes played.
Tigers were playing at a tempo in defence which made it difficult for their rivals to claim any territory and a knock-on near halfway gave Geordan Murphy’s men put-in at a scrum and the set-piece brought a penalty against Welsh loosehead Wyn Jones.
Ford, from an identical position to his opening kick, aimed for goal again but this time he was wide of the target.
A chip over the defence from Ford evaded Eastmond in their next attack, but Scarlets showed their enterprise to claim a try as Halfpenny was able to run play forward and scrum-half Davies provided the finish as he supported a break in midfield. Halfpenny added the extras to make it 10-7 on 16 minutes.
The visiting supporters were in good voice when No8 Will Boyde won a penalty at a breakdown, giving Halfpenny another kick for the posts from his own side of the halfway line. He fired just wide, though, and the score remained 10-7.
A moment later they looked like they had claimed a second try with back-rower Blade Thomson somehow sliding into the corner on a slick pitch from about five metres out. The referee, though, had a second check and ruled the ball had slid out of his grasp as Holmes tackled just fractions short of the line.
It was a big escape but also a perfect illustration of the dangers posed by an adventurous Scarlets side.
Their next attack, this time through patient build-up with the forwards, brought a penalty in front of the posts as referee Romain Poite pointed at Guy Thompson as the culprit. Halfpenny knocked the kick over to level the scores on 28 minutes.
Tigers went through nearly 20 phases of possession at the Scarlets end of the field in response, with Spencer, Wells and Dan Cole carrying, but they were then penalised at a ruck and the Welshmen were able to kick clear.
A sliced kick from scrum-half Davies almost threatened the line as he made amends by gathering possession out wide, but Wells won turnover ball on the floor and quickly turned defence into attack as Tigers scored a second try.
Quick recycling and then quick hands from Ford produced some space and Thompson won the race into the left-hand corner.
Ford was unable to add the extras but Tigers were 15-10 in front with two minutes still to play and Scarlets quickly chipped three points off the deficit when Halfpenny landed a second penalty in the final score of the half.
Ford, though, made it 18-13 with a kick from another scrum penalty at the start of the second half and the set-piece provided more Tigers ball moments later, this time referee Poite stopping the game to speak to Wyn Jones and skipper Ken Owens in the Scarlets front row.
The penalty pushed Tigers up to the opposition 22 and brought a third try, this time Kalamafoni making the final metres to the line after Tuilagi and then Polota-Nau had Scarlets going backwards. Ford’s kick made it 25-13.
Thompson’s dominant work at the next breakdown was rewarded with a penalty and took Tigers back upfield, but Tuilagi spilled ball on another attack and Halfpenny kicked clear.
A missed lineout on their own 22 put Tigers under pressure and, although the defence kept their discipline, wing Steff Evans found a gap around the ruck to score after a quick exchange of passes. Halfpenny made it a seven-point score and cut the deficit to 25-20.
May and Halfpenny contested a towering kick from Ford but knocked-on and gave Tigers another set-piece opportunity 35 metres out. Despite winning the push, Tigers turned over ball on the left and Scarlets played their way out.
The game was an hour old when confusion in the Tigers defence cost a third try when Gareth Davies fielded loose ball and suddenly found himself in space with Blade Thomson in support and back-rower ran in. Halfpenny’s kick put the visitors in front at 25-27 and gave their large support more cause for celebration. They could not have known at that stage that it would be their final points of the evening.
An error from Jonathan Davies in his 22 gave Tigers an opportunity from a scrum put-in and Tuilagi made it count when he showed brute strength to reach for the line on the left after Thompson had been first to threaten a score near the posts.
The try guaranteed a try bonus point and Ford’s conversion from the left touchline made it 32-27.
Kitchener replaced Spencer and claimed the restart kick before Ford punted a penalty down to the Scarlets 22. From the set-piece, Tuilagi arrived on a line and took four defenders with him before Thompson once more attacked the tryline. Eventually, Holmes got over the tryline but Jonathan Davies looked like he’d got underneath the full-back to deny a try.
After consulting with the TMO, referee Poite confirmed no try had been scored but brought play back for a penalty and Ford took Tigers eight points in front at 35-27 on 69 minutes with the kick.
Hooker Jake Kerr made his European debut on 70 minutes, with Tommy Reffell also on in the back row, and Scarlets were again in trouble with the referee after being whistled at a lineout. Ford made them pay with a 60-metre kick downfield and the Scarlets were penned in as Tuilagi forced his way forwards again and the power of the forwards combined with quick passing in the backs for May to run in his sixth try of the season. Ford added the conversion to put Tigers more than two scores in front at 42-27.
Matt Toomua, on at centre, relieved the pressure from the restart by kicking up to halfway and then Tigers won a breakdown penalty for Ford to make it 45-27 with the final scoring of the evening.