Leicester Tigers took a bonus point in a 22-18 defeat against Racing 92 in the opening game of the club’s 21st European Cup campaign at the Stade Yves Du Manoir in Paris on Saturday.
A try from Luke Hamilton in the opening minutes gave Tigers a perfect start in Pool 4 of the European Champions Cup, but Racing showed their ruthlessness as well as their physical strength in adding three first-half tries in response with man-of-the-match Leone Nakarawa involved in all three as they built a 19-10 lead.
Tigers, though, fought back with a seventh try of the season for Jonnny May shortly before half-time to cut the deficit to just four points.
The second half remained just as tight with a penalty from Racing stretching their lead but neither side able to finish off the opportunities created before George Ford’s penalty with just three minutes remaining brought Tigers back within reach at 22-18.
Head coach Matt O’Connor recalled Graham Kitchener to the starting line-up after an eye injury, with Hamilton, Telusa Veainu, Ben Youngs, Ellis Genge, Tom Youngs, Mike Williams and Matt Smith all back in the XV while Nick Malouf makes his European Cup debut after three tries in his first six appearances for the club.
Tigers kicked off, facing into the autumnal sunshine, and the match was just three minutes old when Hamilton provided the opening score.
A tap penalty from scrum-half Youngs initiated an attack from halfway and, although it looked like the opportunity had gone after a loose pass from George Ford, Malouf picked up again and charged into the Racing 22 and Hamilton timed his run perfectly to burst through a gap and score. Ford added the extras for an early seven-point lead.
South Africa international Patrick Lambie was added to the Racing backline just a few minutes later as Juan Imhoff limped off, and Tigers maintained their pressure in possession and then Joe Rokocoko into conceding a lineout five metres from his own line. The visitors failed to execute off the lineout, though, and Racing cleared.
Racing threatened for the first time on 11 minutes with a break by Lambie but Tigers latched on to loose ball and survived the scare when Ford cleared.
Tigers were then penalised at a breakdown just as they were looking to start a counter-attack but Racing scrum-half Teddy Iribaren kicked wide from 45 metres.
The home side, however, were starting to build a head of steam and claimed three tries in the space of just 11 minutes.
First, they were denied by the TMO when they were held up over the line with Census Johnston in possession. Although the verdict was no try, play remained five metres out from the Tigers tryline and Racing made the most of the put-in at the scrum and quick recycling for Nakarawa to reach out and plant the ball down one-handed on the right. The conversion from Iribaren levelled the scores with 22 minutes gone.
Tigers had an immediate response when Ford added a penalty from just outside the Racing 22 after some big carries among the forwards as Tigers led 10-7.
But Racing used their physical strength to score again and take the lead for the first time with a try from Bernard Le Roux after Nakarawa had again managed to offload in contact. The referee had to check the footage again before awarding the score, with the conversion making it 14-10 with just under 30 minutes played.
Another score quickly followed as Nakarawa popped a pass out to the right where Tigers were short-handed and scrum-half Iribaren lifted the scoring pass out for wing Teddy Thomas to run in and stretch the lead to 19-10.
The hosts were quickly down to 14 men when centre Virimi Vakatawa was sin-binned for a high tackle on Malouf after a 50-metre break by Veainu and Tigers made the most of the chance with a second try.
The forwards provided a platform for the attack and Toomua’s passed the ball out for May to score on the left. Ford was unable to add the extras from wide on the left but Tigers were back within striking distance at 19-15.
Good work from Williams, charging up the left, and then two big interventions from Sione Kalamafoni looked to have created another score, but Matt Smith had the ball dislodged from his grasp as he attempted to reach into the left-hand corner in the last action of the half with the hosts still four points in front.
Racing had the chance to fire the first shots in the second half when Tigers were penalised for a high tackle on Remi Tales on halfway, but Iribaren was well short of the posts with the kick.
As Tigers cleared up to halfway, though, the Paris side used the lineout to launch an attack which almost took No8 Yannick Nyanga almost to the tryline, only to lose the ball forward with support on his left.
Hamilton cleared up some loose ball just outside the Tigers 22 and, with Smith, in support, took play up to halfway, but could not get the ball back to recycle and Racing had the put-in at a scrum just as they changed two-thirds of their front row.
Scrum-half Iribaren created a half-chance a he chipped ahead and loose ball had the Tigers defence chasing back, but play was called back for a knock-on, to the displeasure of the home crowd.
Tigers escaped a good chance after 51 minutes after Vakatawa broke a series of tackles on the left, but Toomua won the race for the ball after the chip into the corner and, after checking a series of replays, the referee restarted play with a 22 drop-out for the visitors.
Nakarawa had the home crowd in good voice again as he reached over the defence to offload ball on halfway before Hamilton stepped in with a superb interception from Iribaren’s looped pass and Ford cleared back up into French territory.
But Tigers couldn’t build from there, with Lambie kicking a penalty for Racing down their right-hand touchline. The whistle went again with Tigers offside after the lineout, and replacement Maxime Machenaud had an immediate impact as he kicked from the 10-metre line for a 22-15 lead just short of the hour mark.
Brendon O’Connor and Mathew Tait left the bench on 60 minutes with Williams and Smith making way after a big shift and shortly afterwards quick thinking in the Tigers backline almost created another score for May, with two defenders shutting him out in the left-hand corner just out of reach of the tryline.
There was still a chance when Racing gave away a free-kick at a defensive scrum, only for Tigers to then be penalised at the resulting set-piece five metres out.
Tigers made changes in the front row as the game entered the final 15 minutes with George McGuigan’s introduction followed by opportunities for Greg Bateman and Pat Cilliers with much of the period spent in the middle third of the pitch.
Dan Tuohy replaced Kitchener with eight minutes remaining and his first involvement saw the Tigers scrum win a penalty on the edge of their own 22, with Ford taking play up to halfway with the kick to the left.
Tigers kept Racing in their own half and gave Ford the chance to chip away at Racing’s lead when Camille Chat dumped Cilliers with a dangerous tackle. The kick made it 22-18 with 77 minutes gone on the clock.
There was time for one more attack from Racing who were chasing a bonus-point try. They were handed a penalty just near halfway and Lambie chipped the kick to the touchline on their right. But Tigers remained tight in defence, making their shots and getting back in line, before Vakatawa’s knock-on brought the game to a close.
Tigers are back in Pool 4 action with a home game against Castres Olympique on Saturday, October 21. Kick-off is at 5.30pm and tickets are available now.