Leicester Tigers beat an Italian Select XV 33-19 at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday.
Head coach Steve Borthwick named an extended squad led by Hanro Liebenberg and including Guy Porter after his release from England duties, though nine players were otherwise engaged with international squads in the first week of the autumn internationals as Tigers hosted Italian visitors for the first time since 2016.
Former Wasps fly-half Charlie Atkinson made his club debut from the bench after joining the club earlier this week.
Tom Cowan-Dickie added to the scoreline in the second half, but the visitors claimed a couple for themselves, twice closing to within single figures on the scoreboard before the replacement hooker added his second and the day’s eighth in the final minute.
Tigers, in the club’s blue change kit for this one-off fixture, kicked off following the annual Remembrance tributes as the first part of an historic Double Header with the men’s and women’s teams sharing a Mattioli Woods Welford Road matchday for the first time.
The visitors were led out by lock Giovanni Montemauri, among eight senior internationals in a squad selected from the ranks of URC clubs Benetton and Zebre as well as pathway players in the national set-up.
And the game was just 70 seconds old when they celebrated the opening score, fly-half Leonardo Marin creating space on the left for full-back Lorenzo Pani to run in.
But from the restart Tigers built pressure with a penalty in the corner and No8 Liebenberg was at the heart of the maul to level the scores. Freddie Burns added the conversion to make it 7-5.
A second penalty proved just as costly, Burns going to the corner from an almost identical position and the forwards combining with Nemani Nadolo to get on the front foot and Anthony Watson taking the pass from Burns to score to the left of the posts. Burns added his second conversion.
Olly Cracknell was involved twice as Tigers built another attack, but Harry Potter was finally taken into touch as he fed of an offload by Nadolo on the left touchline.
Cameron Henderson and then George Martin made important tackles as the Italians broke out from deep, and when Tigers got back upfield, a Nadolo charge provided the impetus and a third try followed as Liebenberg’s lineout work set up Cracknell to crash over the line. Burns completed a hat-trick of conversions to make it 21-5.
Porter was quick to chase a teasing kick in behind the Tigers defence and then showed some composure in brushing off the first tackler and kicking clear. Another promising position for the visitors was lost with a penalty at a lineout on halfway, which Burns played into the corner. Wells claimed the set-piece with a one-handed catch but Tigers were whistled a couple of phases later just short of the tryline.
When a chip ahead just evaded Matt Scott’s grasp, Potter recovered quickly to chase down centre Marco Zanon as he crossed halfway. It was Scott’s last taste of the action before being replaced by Phil Cokanasiga.
A kick from Burns down the left touchline pinned back the visitors with four minutes remaining in the opening half and then fly-half Marin won the chase back to a chip ahead by Cokanasiga just in front of his own tryline and his forwards followed up by winning a penalty in defence as the clock reached the half-time mark..
Borthwick made a number of changes at half-time, including the introduction of Atkinson at full-back and a return for Tom Cowan-Dickie in the front row, but were quickly a man down when Cameron Henderson was yellow-carded for a high tackle contesting ball in the centre of the pitch.
An Italian lineout drive almost brought a breakthrough as hooker Marco Manfredi broke off on the five-metre line, but his offload to support went forward. Although play restarted with a Tigers scrum, the short-handed pack were penalised not just at the set-piece but then at the lineout and again in defence.
Eventually the visitors got some reward when a 50-22 kick from Marin took play into the left-hand corner and from the lineout, hooker Marco Manfredi broke off the maul to dive in for the try. Marin added the conversion to take the score to 21-12.
But it stayed that way for only a moment as Potter claimed the restart and the forwards arrived to barge over, with Tom Cowan-Dickie the scorer. Jimmy Gopperth added the conversion from wide on the right.
The Italians responded almost as quickly, scrum-half Emilio Fusco supporting a break on halfway and chipping through for Giulio Bertaccini to run through and score. The conversion from Nicolo Teneggi closed the gap to nine points at 28-19.
Interplay between Sean Jansen and Eli Snyman, then Atkinson and Joe Woodward almost created a scoring chance for Tjgers, then Saumaki showed typical strength in fending off tacklers on the 22 before Tigers were given a penalty when a player was tackled off the ball with five minutes left on the clock.
They kept play in the corner until Cowan-Dickie emerged at the pile of bodies at another maul to claim the final points of an entertaining afternoon.