Leicester Tigers were beaten 36-26 by Racing 92 in Pool 4 of the Heineken Champions Cup in Paris on Sunday but returned home with a try bonus after scoring four times in the unique surrounds of the La Defense Arena.
It was scant reward for a battling and enterprising performance from Tigers who twice found themselves a man short due to yellow cards.
Racing were 12 points to the good with two tries during a period when Manu Tuilagi was in the sin-bin early on, but Tigers got a foothold in the game with a first try of the season for Jonah Holmes who then left the field with an injury.
Two more tries for the French side secured their bonus point just after the half-hour before Tigers, who were well in the game throughout the opening 40 minutes, responded with Sione Kalamafoni’s close-range try to make it 26-14 at the interval.
Tigers also claimed the opening score of the second half with a try from Tuilagi, showing pace and power on the touchline to bring it back to 26-19.
But a penalty from Finn Russell provided some vital daylight before a fifth score from Racing and, although Adam Thompstone ran in a bonus-point score for the visitors after superb work from skipper George Ford, they could not find another one in closing moments to take an extra consolation.
Playing in the unique indoor surroundings and artificial pitch of the stunning La Defense Arena, Racing were defending their unbeaten start in the pool following wins over Scarlets away and Ulster in Paris in the opening two rounds.
Geordan Murphy brought Matt Toomua and Tatafu Polota-Nau in to the Tigers team, while adding Mike Fitzgerald and Harry Wells to the forward pack following league defeat at Bristol, and there was a starting place for young scrum-half Ben White with Ben Youngs among the replacements. Guy Thompson returned to the squad after missing two games with a leg injury and Will Evans came in for his first European Cup involvement of the season.
Wearing the club’s traditional red, white and green colours, Tigers got the game under way after the light show and fire-and-flames razzmatazz of the arena and spent the opening three minutes in the attacking 22, recycling efficiently and getting the ball through hands in the forwards and also bringing in Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua in midfield.
George Ford had the visiting fans’ hearts in mouths momentarily as he slipped in fielding a kick, but recovered to offload smartly for Tigers to begin a counter-attack.
But there was a warning sign soon afterwards when Racing hooker Dmitri Szarzewski broke through a gap on an inside ball before the defence covered and won turnover ball in the counter-ruck.
Turnover ball in attack from Tigers, though, gave Racing impetus in the middle of the field and brought their first points.
They were looking to exploit extra numbers on their right when Tuilagi was penalised for deliberate knock-on and he was in the sin-bin as Leone Nakarawa reached over the line to score following the attacking lineout.
Another attack threatened less than two minutes later, with Jonah Holmes called into action in defence on the right touchline.
Tigers invited more pressure when they were dispossessed following their own lineout drive but the defence stood up just in front of the tryline until finally forcing an error in the Racing backline.
The numerical imbalance was perfectly illustrated as Racing claimed a second try on 12 minutes, moving the ball simply from right to left to free wing Juan Imhoff for a run in against the short-handed defence to make it 12-0.
It seemed harsh on Tigers after a promising start and the next score was going to be vital – and it was not long in coming.
Tigers forced an error in the Racing 22 and from the scrum, White went to the right and picked out Holmes who showed enough strength to recover his footing from an attempted tackle and dived in to the right of the posts. Ford made it 12-7 with the conversion.
After recovering possession at the restart, Ford kicked clear from the edge of his 22 but got too much on it and the ball bounced dead 80 metres upfield, bringing play right back to Tigers territory as Tuilagi returned.
From the scrum, Racing created space for Simon Zebo on the right but Holmes and May combined to take him into touch just short of the line.
Zebo, though, fed off another inside ball from Russell to add Racing’s third try on 24 minutes and the Scotland fly-half added the kick to make it 19-7.
Holmes left the field with injury moments later, with Matt Smith coming on.
Racing knocked-on at a lineout on their own 22, giving Tigers a scrum which then brought a penalty but, after going to the corner, the hosts got up in front of Harry Wells to steal possession and the chance was gone.
Tigers, though, kept their hosts pinned inside their own 22, with Toomua looking to release May on a dangerous line before the defence cut him down.
Tatafu Polota-Nau then broke through the French defensive line before a quick turnover of ball almost brought a fourth score at the other end as Teddy Iribaren cleverly kicked upfield and Brice Dulin won the race but, after kicking ahead, he was just short of making the vital touch, though he celebrated behind the deadball line before referee Nigel Owens confirmed no try with the assistance from the TMO.
The respite did not last long, though, as back-rower Baptiste Chouzenoux forced his way over after Ellis Genge had brought down Nakarawa near the line moments later.
A kick into the corner from Toomua looked for Thompstone but Iribaren covered just a few metres out from the tryline and hacked into touch.
Tigers, though ,were not to be denied as a strong lineout drive on the right allowed the forwards to exert some control and, after Polota-Nau had spun his way just short of the line, Kalamafoni picked up to dive over for the try. Ford added the kick to make it 26-14 with 90 seconds still to play in the half.
A knock-on from Brendon O;Connor, fielding a high kick deep in defence, meant the half would finish in Tigers territory and, after being penalised at the set-piece, Russell called for the kicking tee but shanked the kick to the right of the posts as Owens brought the half to a close.
A scrappy start to the second half was halted as Genge and Kalamafoni lined up a big tackle on prop Eddy Ben Arous who remained grounded and required lengthy treatment before being stretchered off.
Play restarted with Tigers put-in at a scrum midway inside their own half and wityhin seconds, Tuilagi was at the other end celebrating a try.
Tigers certainly had the push on at the scrum before releasing May on a 40-metre run on the left and when play spread the opposite way Mike Fitzgerald showed great timing and awareness to pass on to Tuilagi who beat the defence down the touchline to score wide on the right and bring Tigers back to within one score of the hosts at 26-19 with 44 minutes gone.
Desperate defence from Tigers was required to keep their rivals out moments later, carrying several times towards the posts and Smith making a timely tackle on Zebo as he closed in out wide.
But a knock-on in contact under the posts gave Racing put-in ball at the scrum, but the set-piece ended with Genge yellow-carded and Russell knocked over the penalty to take the advantage back into double figures at 29-19.
No8 Antonie Claassens picked off a long pass from Ford in midfield to get Racing forward but the Tigers fly-half reacted sharply to cover Imhoff’s break and May was able to win the race to the loose ball behind his own tryline.
Iribaren was then denied a try after exchanging passes with Nakarawa to dot down in the corner, only for the referee to call play back for a forward pas. replays showed the scrum-half had also gone into touch as he reached to score,
Tigers again toughed it out in defence under their posts as Nakarawa threatened to find a way through, but had to call Campese Ma’afu on as a temporary front rower in Genge’s absence with O’Connor making way and Smith joining the back row for a scrum before Ford booted clear.
But Russell finally unpicked the defence with a 30-metre run from halfway and, when May brought down Nakarawa, ckentre Oliver Klemenczak reacted quickly to take the offload and score in the left-hand corner. Russell added a perfect kick from out wide to make it 36-19.
Geordan Murphy refreshed the pack with the introduction of Jake Kerr and Mike Williams as Genge returned from the yellow card.
Smith chased his own chip ahead and momentarily it looked like a promising position for Tigers but Racing came away with the ball and the defence had to recover. Smith stayed down and was replaced by Ben Youngs as Murphy was forced into a reshuffle with the game approaching its final 15 minutes.
A trademark charge from Genge took Tigers 40 metres upfield, with support latching on quickly as he stayed on his feet in the tackle, ended in the 22 but Tigers were unable to work an opening as Racing tracked back.
The visitors were still looking for a fourth try to take something out of the game, May twice providing hope with runs from his new berth at full-back and Guy Thompson injecting fresh pace in the back row,.
The enterprise was rewarded on 70 minutes when Ford picked off a pass on his own 22, raced up to halfway and kicked ahead. Although, Zebo beat him to it, he poked the ball into touch and Foerd reacted quickly to throw straight to Thompstone to score. Toomua added a drop-goal conversion as the referee checked the legality of the score before confirming the try.
A high tackle from Youngs was penalised on halfway but Russell missed touch and May kicked clear, though a chance was lost when Tigers missed a lineout throw 20 metres out with five minutes left on the clock.
White’s burst of pace and long pass to the right gave more impetus to the visitors until referee Owens penalised Mike Williams in possession 25 metres out, but they responded with another attack from deep, Ford and Tuilagi carrying impressively, only to be denied by spilled ball as they looked to load the right-hand side.