Leicester Tigers were beaten 33-31 at Bath Rugby in the second round of the Anglo-Welsh Cup on Friday, losing the lead with just over a minute left on the clock after a valiant performance from a young squad but taking two bonus points in consolation.
A second try of the season for Jonah Holmes and two kicks from Tom Hardwick gave Tigers a 10-0 lead by the 20-minute mark on a crisp and clear evening in the West Country, and Adam Thompstone followed a try in his return to the team a week earlier with another score as the visitors made the most of their opportunities in the opening half.
The lead sat at 11 points before Freddie Burns converted his own try just before half-time, bringing the home side back into the game at 13-17.
A second from Holmes gave Tigers some breathing space again at the start of the second period without being able to pull decisively clear.
Ben White’s first senior try dragged the lead out to 12 points and at last guaranteed one bonus point after a huge effort in defence from the entire team.
But with the work in defence against some big carriers in the Bath line-up taking its toll and penalties mounting up, a penalty try in the 78th minute finally titled the balance in favour of the home side.
Tigers, who launched their cup-winning campaign in 2016/17 with a narrow win at The Rec, kicked off their defence of the title with a 26-24 victory over Gloucester at Welford Road while Bath won at London Irish.
For their 99th visit to The Rec, Harry Thacker led out a team which included nine academy graduates, with another five among the replacements where teenagers Sam Wager and Will Yarnell were gaining a first experience of senior rugby.
Coach Geordan Murphy gave senior debuts to development squad trio Jordan Olowofela, Tom Hardwick and Tommy Reffell, with USA international prop Chris Baumann earning a first start.
Bath named former Tigers fly-half Burns in the No10 jersey, while skipper Matt Garvey made his 100th appearance for the club and led a side which included the experienced Matt Banahan, Tom Homer and Nick Auterac.
After Remembrance Day tributes, it was Bath who to the game under way with Burns kicking towards the clubhouse end and, although they gained some useful possession, Tigers stuck to the task in defence while also making a mess of their opposition’s early lineouts.
The opening points came with a Hardwick penalty after 10 minutes, with Bath judged offside in front of their own posts following a move which started with Thompstone’s kick-chase and allowed Harry Simmons to show his pace down the left.
Holmes then quickly turned defence into attack on the opposite flank, ripping ball from Jack Wilson on the Tigers 22 and, as the visitors quickly opened up the play, Charlie Thacker kicked in behind the Bath defence. Referee Greg Macdonald, though, awarded Bath a penalty just as Tigers looked to peg their hosts back in their own territory and Burns was able to kick up towards halfway.
Bath set up a promising maul as they claimed the lineout ball, but good pressure from the Tigers defence was rewarded with the breakthrough score.
Charlie Thacker charged down a kick from Burns and hacked ahead, with Olowofela and Holmes leading the chase. Holmes read the bounce and dived over for his second try in successive games to stretch the lead to eight points. Hardwick made it double figures with a well-judged conversion from wide on the right.
The Bath pack looked like they would provide an instant response, carrying threateningly, but lost possession just 10 metres from the posts.
The hosts finally got on the scoreboard in the 25th minute, Burns knocking over a simple penalty after Harry Thacker had been whistled at a ruck just 10 metres out from the posts.
Another big defensive effort kept Bath at arm’s length through a series of phases of possession before centre Thacker was penalised for not releasing in a tackle and Burns again called for the tee and cut the gap to four points with his second kick of the evening as the clock passed the half-hour mark.
When Bath were penalised at a ruck near halfway, Hardwick put a confident kick into the corner on the left-hand side to set up a second score and a big confidence-booster for the Tigers pack.
Claiming clean lineout ball, the Tigers forwards got their driving maul set and with Wells steering from the front, it was Thompstone who took the tiller, dropping down over the line for his second try in seven days.
Hardwick’s conversion made it 17-6 entering the final five minutes of the half.
Tigers could have done with holding out until the whistle from referee Greg Macdonald but it was Burns who gave Bath a lifeline with a solo score with slightly more than a minite-and-a-half remaining.
After Hardwick had brought down a break from flanker Josh Bayliss, referee Macdonald was playing a penalty advantage when Burns took ball 15 metres out and managed to chip and catch on the tryline to provide a precious score. He got up to add the conversion and cut the deficit to four points for a second time.
Burns also supplied the opening points of the second half, kicking a penalty from 25 metres as the home side trailed by a point at 16-17.
But a superb second score from Holmes provided another cushion for Tigers just two minutes later, latching on to a break by Olowofela and running on to his offload with precision timing to run in on the left. Hardwick added the extras as Tigers moved eight points in front.
It looked like Bath had responded with a try of their own for Banahan, but the referee confirmed that the ball had been lost forward on the tryline after consultation with the TMO. It was just reward for a huge shift from the Tigers defence who repeatedly made their shots and g0t back to their feet to keep the intact.
Bath, though, won a penalty at the resultant scrum five metres out and Burns, taking the captaincy as Garvey made way, knocked it over to make the score 19-24.
Frantic defence from Tigers kept Bath out through another set of phases on their 22, with Banahan prominent as a ball-carrier.
At their next attack, they looked to set up Banahan again, but Fred Tuilagi made a superb interception and then broke out, kicking upfield to relieve the pressure.
The rewards for his team-mates came with a bonus-point try just after the hour mark, with scrum-half White supporting a break to run in next to the posts, spinning in a tackle from full-back Homer dot down. Hardwick again added the kick as the visitors led 31-19.
Bath continued to use their biggest carriers to test the Tigers defence and threatened with a penalty into the left-hand corner, only to knock-on at the lineout.
But as Tuilagi tried to pick up at the base of the scrum which followed, Bath managed to pressure the ball and Zach Mercer dived over for an opportunist score, just as it looked as if the visitors had weathered that storm. Burns kicked to bring the deficit to less than a score at 26-31 with 13 minutes still to play.
There were some tired bodies still managing to stick to their task, with Olowofela kicking clear when Banahan chipped in behind the Tigers defence
Tuilagi was whistled for a high tackle just inside his own half as Bath threatened once more, and teenage scrum-half Yarnell made a piece of history as the game restarted, replacing White and becoming the first player born since the millennium to make a first-team appearance for the club.
Another penalty, this time for collapsing the maul, kept Tigers hemmed in and referee Macdonald spoke to Wells, who had taken over as captain when Thacker was withdrawn, as a final warning about team discipline. At the set-piece which followed, though, Joe Maksymiw was yellow carded as a maul collapsed five metres out and Tigers were unable then to escape from their own territory.
Bath elected to scrum from the restart, using their extra man to again push Tigers pack, and a series of penalties and resets had Tigers on the ropes in defence of their five-point lead before the referee finally ran in under the posts as another scrum went down.
With no conversion necessary under the new laws, Bath had the lead for the first time with just over a minute left to play and were able to tick down the clock to make it two wins from two in the campaign.