Leicester Tigers scored three tries in a 24-12 victory over Cardiff Blues in the third round of the Anglo-Welsh Cup at Welford Road on Saturday.
Cup holders Tigers, who went into the game second in Pool 4 after two rounds, stretched an unbeaten run against Welsh sides in the tournament after scores from Will Evans, Jordan Olowofela and Luke Hamilton, though they did have to withstand a fightback from the visitors in the second half.
A try from Evans, after a Joe Ford penalty had given Tigers an early lead, provided a platform and Olowofela – on as a temporary replacement – scored a second as the lead reached 17 points before half-time.
Captained by former Tigers favourite Blaine Scully, the Blues got back into the contest with a converted try from former Tigers centre Jack Roberts early in the second half and another for scrum-half Lewis Jones on the hour mark which brought them to within one score.
But Luke Hamilton’s score provided some breathing space as Tigers continued their defence of the trophy.
Tigers have lost just one Anglo-Welsh pool game at Welford Road since 2011 and had won all five previous fixtures against Welsh visitors in the tournament. This victory took them level on points with pool leaders Newcastle Falcons who were beaten at Bath and host Gloucester next weekend in their final pool fixture.
Argentine prop Facundo Gigena was handed his debut in a team led by scrum-half Sam Harrison while Gareth Owen and Harry Wells were the only players to retain their places after the European Cup outing against Racing.
Tigers got the action underway, playing towards the Robin Hood Stand, and had to wait just three minutes to open the scoring with a penalty from Ford after the Blues backline had been called offside.
The next 10 minutes were played entirely between the 10-metre lines, with a lot of endeavour from both sides but neither able to find a break.
A big hit from Harry Wells stopped the Blues in their tracks, and hooker Jake Kerr provided value go-forward when Tigers won the ball back before Ford turned down a kick at goal with another penalty 35 metres out.
Instead, the fly-half pushed play into the left-hand corner to build pressure on the Blues. They were penalised twice more at the lineout with referee Jack Makepeace giving a warning to skipper Scully as Tigers re-set the throw.
When the Blues again infringed, attacking the Tigers catcher Hamilton before he had hit the floor and referee Jack Makepeace showed a yellow card to prop Corey Domachowski.
Outnumbered at the subsequent lineout, Blues had no answer to the Tigers drive and Evans dived over to score. Ford added the conversion for a 10-0 lead with 25 minutes gone.
Olowofela replaced Gareth Owen as the centre went for an HIA check soon after the try and twice went close to a try, being taken down just short of the line on the right wing and then held up over the line on the opposite side barely 60 seconds later.
But he made it at the third time of asking, with the forwards keeping the Blues back on their own line and, when skipper Sam Harrison pushed play left to right, Olowofela was able to pick his way through to score before swapping places with Owen again and returning to the bench. Ford added the extras from wide on the right as Tigers led 17-0 going into the last 10 minutes of the half.
A midfield break from centre Aled Summerhill up to the 22 and a run down the left wing by Corey Howells were the best a young Blues side could offer in attack, but Tigers largely kept them at arm’s length and safely defended the 17-point lead up to half-time.
The Blues, though, started the second period with some good possession on the edge of the 22, with centre Roberts closed out as he threatened on the left.
But he did not have long to wait as a five-metre scrum kept Tigers on the back foot and when Blues went to the right it was Roberts who dived over to score. Steven Shingler kicked the conversion to make it 17-7 on 55 minutes.
Tigers replaced the whole front row on the hour mark, but they were powerless to prevent a second Blues score following a five-metre lineout.
When the referee blew for a penalty, scrum-half Lewis Jones took a quick tap and darted in to score. Shingler’s kick rattled the near post as Tigers led 17-12.
Tigers had had barely any possession in the opposition half, but finally got back on the scoresheet with a try from Hamilton.
Ford put a penalty into the left-hand corner and, although a big forward drive ended just a metre short, the flanker had enough support to push over at the next phase and Ford added the conversion as the lead reached 24-12.
Tom Brady, making his first Welford Road appearance of the season, made a huge hit to bring a promising Blues attack to a halt and then Tatafu Polota-Nau made a similar impact on scrum-half Jones before Tigers found themselves down to 14 men when Joe Maksymiw was sin-binned for blocking a quick penalty just 10 metres out from his own line.
A Thacker tackle on Roberts had Blues in retreat but Tigers still couldn’t get out of their own half. The tackle also signalled the end of the afternoon for the unlucky Roberts, who received treatment from the physios before being helped off.
Blues threatened another score with a penalty into the right-hand corner but over-shot the lineout and Harry Simmons was able to clear with a big left-footed kick as the final miniutes were played out on the edge of the home side’s 22.