Leicester Tigers scored four tries in the Premiership Rugby Cup derby with Northampton Saints on Saturday but took only a consolation point from a 22-31 defeat at Welford Road.
The Round 4 fixture swung one way and then the other after Saints had taken the lead with a Dave Ribbans try, only to be pegged back when Jonah Holmes twice found his way to the left-hand corner for Tigers.
Then, after a second for Ribbans gave the visitors a 14-10 lead at the break, two tries in two minutes from Will Spencer and Noel Reid pushed Tigers in front again early in the second half with an eight-point advantage and a semi-final spot still within reach.
But back came Saints with a breakaway try for Tom Collins and then a clinical finish from Fraser Dingwall to go in front at 28-22 approaching the final 10 minutes and they added a penalty soon afterwards to put some daylight between the teams.
Tigers kicked off just one point behind Exeter Chiefs (who were at home to Bristol Bears) and Bath, who finished their programme with a win at Gloucester on Friday, but still in the hunt for a semi-final place while Saints were bottom of Pool 1 after three rounds.
After a minute’s silence for former players Mike Mortimer and Steve Booth, it was Reid who got the game underway, kicking towards the Robin Hood End, in the 244th meeting of the East Midlands rivals.
But Saints made good use of early ball, spreading play wide and then channelling it through the forwards up towards the Tigers line. After several attempts from close range, though, they finally lost possession forwards and were then penalised as Tigers kept the ball in the scrum five metres out.
Saints were also called for sealing off as they defended a chipped kick from Reid just inside their own half but escaped as the home side over-shot the lineout.
The visitors made the most of it, claiming the opening score as scrum-half Henry Taylor squirmed through a gap at a ruck and passed on to second-rower Ribbans to run in under the posts. James Grayson added the conversion for a seven-point lead with just under 10 minutes played.
When Saints gained a breakdown penalty 30 metres out from the Tigers line, they punted into the corner but were pushed back five metres as the home pack timed their defence perfectly at the lineout and then forced handling error.
But Saints dominated possession in the opening quarter, with Taqele Naiyaravoro looking to offload ball in the danger area and Andy Symons carrying strongly in midfield.
Ifereimi Boladau replaced Tommy Reffell in the Tigers back row with his side on their own lineout ball five metres from their line and, when the home side were given a penalty it led to a score at the opposite end.
First, Tigers claimed ball near halfway and, playing with an advantage, Reid chipped over the defence and then threw a long pass out to the left wing where Holmes beat Ryan Olowofela and raced in to score. Reid’s conversion kick drifted across the posts with the score 7-5 in the visitors’ favour.
From the restart, Tigers counter-attacked again with George Worth picking his way out of his own 22 and then Reid breaking upfield. When he was stopped by Naiyaravoro, the assistant referee called for a penalty and Reid was able to take sights at the posts.
The fly-half, however, failed to connect with the kick from the tee and pulled it wide with Saints still two points in front.
Ben White’s cheeky blindside break from a scrum got Tigers going forward but when he kicked ahead, it was superb work over the ball from Boladau which halted Saints’ progress as they threatened to break out from inside their own half with men spare out wide.
This time, after Will Spencer caught the throw and Boladau carried again, Reid picked out Holmes near the touchline and, after making contact with Saints defender Olowofela, regained his feet and dived in for his second to give Tigers the lead for the first time.
Saints, though, were next on the scoreboard with a second for Ribbans, finishing a clinical attack from a lineout on the left with a timely arrival on to ball from scrum-half Taylor. Grayson’s conversion made it 14-10 in their favour with seven minutes remaining in the half.
Holmes was penalised for a deliberate knock-on midway inside the Tigers half of the field, and Grayson quickly took play into the corner in front of the Terrace, and the home side had to hold out for the final moments of the half.
There were no line-up changes for the start of the second period and, after weathering more Northampton possession early on, Tigers put together phases of possession in the attacking half.
When Ribbans was whistled for a high tackle on Spencer, Tigers went for the lineout option on the left and it was the second-rower who steered the drive over the line for his first try for the club in his 22nd appearance.
And more followed as a quick exchange of passes involving Eastmond and Forsyth put Reid in to score under the posts and the fly-half added the extras to make it 22-14.
Tigers were still looking to add to their tally with Eastmond eyeing the break in midfield and Liebenberg carrying strongly when Saints broke out to cut the gap to a single point.
When Hutchinson picked off a Tigers offload on the edge of his own 22, he broke upfield and then kicked ahead for replacement Tom Collins to pick up and score. Grayson’s extras trimmed the deficit to 22-21 on 62 minutes.
Then they added a bonus-point score from Dingwall to go in front, executing a lineout move 35 metres out and two passes later the young centre raced through on a diagonal to dot down. Grayson’s conversion made it 22-28.
When Tigers were penalised at a scrum near halfway and then at the resulting lineout, Grayson called for the tee and kicked the three-pointer to put his side more than one score in front with exactly five minutes left on the clock.
Entering the final minute, Tigers went to the left-hand corner from a scrum penalty and had two more whistles in their favour as they looked to finish but were finally wrapped up on the floor as the game came to a close.