Joe Ford struck a late 50-metre penalty to secure a winning start to the pre-season campaign for Leicester Tigers at Cardiff Blues on Saturday.
Summer signings Sam Aspland-Robinson, Campese Ma’afu and Jimmy Stevens were included in an extended squad at the Arms Park and tries from academy graduates Jordan Olowofela and Thom Smith put the visitors into a 14-point lead before Blues got on the scoreboard in the final action of the opening half.
The Blues, though, looked to be heading to a win after posting 15 unanswered points before Ford stood up to strike the decisive penalty in a 17-15 victory for Tigers with just two minutes remaining on the clock.
Tigers were led by Harry Wells and gave starts to Aspland-Robinson, Stevens and Ma’afu in a squad of 30 players against a Blues side running out for the first time under their new coach John Mulvihill.
Both sets of players got through some strong work in contact in the opening stages, before Tigers broke the deadlock with a score from England Under-20s cap Olowofela.
After some close-quarters work in the centre of the field, Jonah Holmes chased a kick from Joe Ford and when ball was recycled and used to the left, full-back Olowofela saw a gap and ran cleanly through it from halfway to score under the posts. Ford added the conversion for a seven-point lead with just five minutes played.
Stevens was an early blood injury, with Jake Kerr sent on as a replacement, but he returned shortly after a Ford penalty had come back off the post from 35 metres out.
With the Blues’ former Tigers wing Blaine Scully and centre Jack Roberts among the crowd, Olowofela sensed another opportunity on 25 minutes but this time, after finding a slight gap, the ball fell loose as the defence closed in and Blues were able to clear from the scrum.
Olowofela was then penalised in defence as he looked to run out as Blues kick and the hosts prodded into the left-hand corner as they searched for the breakthrough. After setting up their maul and closing to within a few metres of the line, though, they were held out by the Tigers defence. Young No8 Smith was able to pick up at the base of the resulting scrum and, under pressure, make valuable ground before Ben White kicked to touch.
The rain, which had started shortly before kick-off, continued to fall as Blues enjoyed their best spell of possession at the midway mark in the opening half. But a spilled pass allowed Aspland-Robinson to hack on and, when he was held back in the chase, Tigers had another penalty.
They made the most of the opportunity, skipper Wells making a catch at the lineout from Ford’s penalty down the left and the forward pack keeping their patience as they rumbled towards the line, where Smith had control and dotted down. Ford added a tricky conversion from wide on the left to make it 14-0 on 27 minutes.
Wells was quickly into the action at the other end, holding up a dangerous Blues attack and earning a penalty as the Welshmen were just 10 metres from the tryline.
Tigers had another, even closer, escape moments later as Blues chased a kick on the right and first Aspland-Robinson got back to take down wing Jason Harries just metres out and then Olowofela dislodged the ball from Harri Millard’s hands as he made a tackle almost within reach of the line.
The visitors’ defence also held out a lineout drive in the left-hand corner, before the Blues made a breakthrough after a close-range scrum had Tigers under pressure and when they spread play wide full-back Dan Fish improvised a kick to the right and wing Harries ran in to score. Steven Shingler added the conversion to make it 7-14 just before half-time.
Head coach Matt O’Connor made extensive changes in the second half as players got their first taste of the action ahead of the new season with Kerr, Harry Simmons and Tom Hardwick the first to emerge from the replacements’ bench. Cameron Jordan quickly joined the on the field as skipper Wells made way.
Aspland-Robinson got 50 minutes under his belt before being replaced by Adam Thompstone as the rain got heavier in the second period.
The Blues grabbed the next score with scrum-half Dan Blacker making the most of a quick penalty in the left-hand corner to cut the gap to 12-14.
Simmons showed his pace in defence as he raced to a grubber kick into the corner ahead of the Blues attack, but Tigers struggled to find a way out of their own territory in the third quarter of the game and Shingler was able to give the hosts the lead for the first time with a 25-metre penalty on the hour mark.
The Blues continued to kick in behind Tigers, pinning their opponents back inside their own half, and leaving their visitors looking to counter-attack rather than build possession.
A dart from Simmons, following a tap penalty on halfway, threatened the home side but Tigers knocked-on 22 metres out and the Blues were able to clear their lines.
The game looked like it was heading towards a home win when Tigers were awarded a penalty on halfway with just a couple of minutes to play. And Ford, back on the field as a replacement for Olowofela, judged his kick perfectly to reclaim the lead and get the pre-season campaign off to a winning start.
Blues: 15 Dan Fish, 14 jason Harries, 13 Harri Millard, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Tom James, 10 Steven Shingler, 9 Lewis Jones; 1 Brad Thyer, 2 Ethan Lewis, 3 Scott Andrews, 4 Ben Murphy, 5 James Down, 6 Callum Bradbury, 7 Olly Robinson (c), 8 James Botham. Replacements (from): Liam Belcher, Rhys Carre, Keiron Assiratti, Rory Thornton, Alun Lawrence, Dane Blacker, Ben Jones, Cai Devine, Morgan Allen, Tom Williams, Aled Summerhill, Cameron Lewis, Ioan Davies, Lloyd Williams.
Tigers: 15 Jordan Olowofela, 14 Jonah Holmes, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 George Worth, 11 Sam Aspland-Robinson, 10 Joe Ford, 9 Ben White; 1 Campese Ma'afu, 2 Jimmy Stevens, 3 Facundo Gigena, 4 James Voss, 5 Harry Wells (c), 6 Sam Lewis, 7 Tommy Reffell, 8 Thom Smith. Replacements (from): Jake Kerr, Harry Mahoney, Joe Heyes, Gaston Cortes, Sam Grahamslaw, Cameron Jordan, Henri Lavin, Taylor Gough, Fred Tuilagi, Harry Simmons, Sam Harrison, Tom Hardwick, Matt Smith, Adam Thompstone, Mathew Tait.