Two first-half tries set Leicester Tigers on the way to an 18-7 win over Bath Rugby at the Recreation Ground on Saturday and maintained hopes of progress in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
Tommy Reffell’s score was reward for the industry of the Tigers early on and a second followed for Ben White as the visitors led 15-0 at half-time.
But, after conceding an interception try early in the second half, Tigers lost Tatafu Polota-Nau to a red card with almost 30 minutes left to play and spent most of the rest of the game in their own territory, repelling Bath attacks until Tom Hardwick landed a late drop goal to put the game well out of reach.
After leading the club at academy and development level in his first spell with the club, Calum Green was named as captain in senior team action for the first time and Adam Thompstone played his first game of 2019 after recovering from knee surgery. Tigers also gave a first start of the season to Polota-Nau while Harry Simmons returned to the squad for the first time in 2019/20 and Nephi Leatigaga was called up to make his debut from the bench.
The weekend began with the four teams in Pool C separated by a single point before Exeter moved clear with a bonus-point win at Worcester on Friday evening, with Tigers and Bath both on five points at kick-off.
There was an early touch for Thompstone, catching a clearance from Chris Cook, but it was Bath who had the first chance of points on the board with a penalty from Freddie Burns after Tigers had been pulled up for a high tackle. But the former Leicester fly-half pushed his kick across the posts.
A clever kick over the top from scrum-half White gave Tigers valuable territory on the right with eight minutes gone, but the defending side managed to win the lineout and clear.
Bath also claimed Tigers lineout ball on halfway but this time the visitors won back possession and used it to create their first attacking opportunity. Harry Wells and Guy Thompson read play well to get hands on ball on the right but the chance was lost with a loose pass out wide.
Disciplined defence near halfway then brought a penalty award and Hardwick had no hesitation in pointing at the posts or in kicking the first points of the day with 14 minutes played.
The Tigers linespeed and work in the tackle kept Bath in the middle third of the field during their periods of possession and then the visitors had the first try on the board with 18 minutes played.
Keeping ball in hand on the right, Tigers pushed forward and Greg Bateman timed his run perfectly to break the defensive line. He found Reffell on his shoulder and the flanker ran free to score on the right. Hardwick’s conversion came back off the post with Tigers 8-0 in front.
When Mike Williams – in his first appearance against his former colleagues – was penalised at the breakdown moments later, Tigers kept Bath pinned back but were then penalised just as they opened up play.
More good work on the ball from Bateman had Tigers roaring forward again, breaking a tackle on the 10-metre line and then finding the support, but White’s kick in behind beat the chasers as Bath covered in defence.
Hardwick kept his cool as he fielded a Burns kick in his own 22 and beat wing Levi Davis with some smart footwork before Bateman’s effort at the next breakdown brought another penalty on halfway.
And the prop was back on the ball moments later, latching on to a lineout take from Reffell and, as Tigers arrived in support, scrum-half White claimed the second try.
He broke wide of the covering defence and, despite being taken down once, bounced immediately back to his feet and had the strength to dot down. Hardwick added the extras for a 15-point lead as the game approached the half-hour mark.
The visitors’ defence had not been troubled by that point but was finally stretched when wing Gabriel Hamer-Webb ran on a diagonal towards the right-hand corner before White took him down less than 10 metres out. Tigers recovered and, although initially outnumbered, they regrouped in time for Reffell to earn a penalty over the ball.
A break from flanker Josh Bayliss finally gave the home crowd something to cheer around 35 minutes as he beat a tackle on halfway and took play on another 20 metres. Tiger were penalised in contact but, after Elliott Stooke claimed ball at the resulting lineout, the whistle blew again, but this time against Bath attack.
The hosts made four changes at half-time, including the introduction of Rhys Priestland in place of Burns and his first contribution was in adding a conversion to an intercept score from Davis on 45 minutes.
Tigers had been on the attack on halfway when Davis picked off a long pass in midfield and ran away for their opening points of the afternoon.
A scrum penalty and another at a lineout had Bath back in Tigers territory moments later and they were playing with an advantage when Reffell was penalised at the next maul, with Green warned about his team’s indiscipline in the opening phases of the half. But Tigers stood up to the drive and cleared as Bath lost ball five metres out.
A huge collision between scrum-half Will Chudley and Polota-Nau brought the game to a halt on 52 minutes and the Tigers hooker was red-carded with the referee judging that contact had been high.
Bath restarted with a penalty and were inching forward when Tigers attacked the breakdown and won a penalty of their own to relieve the pressure.
Jake Kerr was introduced from the bench to compete the front row, with Jordan Coghlan making way, and Tigers also added Hanro Liebenberg to the forward pack, taking off Thompstone from the backline.
When Zach Mercer inadvertently offloaded the ball directly into the chest of referee Jackson, the official had no choice but to restart the game with a scrum, but this brought another Bath penalty and the chance to build on their right. Tigers sent on prop Leatigaga at the set-piece and the visiting side remained on the defensive.
Those first-half scores must have seemed a distant memory but did give Tigers something to hang on to as they defended the eight-point lead with a man short and Bath sending on more experience from the bench in Charlie Ewels and Jamie Roberts.
Simmons replaced White on 65 minutes, with Facundo Gigena on for Bateman in the front row as Tigers had to defend deep and kick clear, forcing Bath to play from long distance.
As the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes, Tom Homer escaped the Tigers defence to put Davis away on the right but the wing pulled up as the defence closed in and, with all replacements already used, the teams were level again at 14 men each for the closing stages.
When Joe Thomas offloaded for Jordan Olowofela, the wing kicked up to the Bath tryline and then led the chase to keep them there.
Tigers then showed good control as they gained some possession, coolly taking phase after phase through the forwards to take the clock down before Hardwick gave the signal and sat deep to nail a drop-goal attempt and settle the verdict, putting Tigers on nine points in the pool, one behind leaders Exeter with a derby to come in Round 4.