Leicester Tigers kicked off the Premiership Rugby Cup campaign with a 32-23 win over Sale Sharks at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday.
An early try from Jack van Poortvliet and three penalties from Bryce Hegarty in his first start for the club at fly-half gave Tigers a 16-3 lead but they had to withstand a fightback from the visitors before Guy Porter’s late score put the outcome beyond doubt.
Cup holders Sale – they lifted the trophy in 2019/20 and the tournament was shelved last season as a result of the pandemic – scored three tries of their own, clawing the gap back to just two points at 25-23 during the third quarter, but some stern defence and a late push forward with a couple of penalties on the left gave Tigers a chance to seal an ninth successive win at the start of the season in all competitions.
The Tigers squad, led by assistant coach Brett Deacon in this tournament, included loanees Josh Poulett and Scott Hall among seven players making a debut appearance. Scrum-half van Poortvliet was named as captain, with Cyle Brink and Kini Murimurivalu among his more experienced colleagues.
Akker van der Merwe led a Sharks team which included regular first-teamers Simon McIntyre, JP du Preez, Jean-Luc du Preez, Luke James and Denny Solomona.
Kick-off followed the traditional Remembrance Day commemorations and the opening stages of the game brought successful penalties by Tom Curtis and Hegarty, though Tigers also missed a couple of set-piece opportunities from attacking lineouts.
After a second Hegarty penalty, van Poortvliet supplied the afternoon’s opening try, taking possession with an interception on the edge of his own 22 and running clear for this third score of the season.
The Hegarty conversion took the lead to 10 points on 19 minutes and the Australian stretched that with his next penalty.
But Sharks crafted a score in response just before the half-hour, wing Reed latching on to Sam Dugdale’s clever offload to run in and the conversion by Curtis made it 16-10.
Whitcombe, normally a loosehead prop and making his first Tigers start in the back row, sat a defender down in another prominent carry but Tigers then had to be alert in defence as an bobbling kick from scrum-half Gus Warr momentarily held up as it bounced over the goalline and full-back Murimurivalu had to react quickly as the chasers closed in.
The Fijian then showed the force of his left boot as he swept up another kick in the 22 and fired play up the right-hand touchline.
After play had been stopped for an injury to Tom Cowan-Dickie, the hooker was back on his feet in time for the game to restart with a scrum, and rewarded with a penalty which Hegarty struck cleanly to bring the half to a close with a 19-10 lead.
The second half opened with Brink making a decisive impact in contact to win a penalty just inside the opposition half and Hegarty judged his kick for goal to perfection as he made it 22-10.
But the fly-half took a knock from the restart and was replaced by debutant Dan Lancaster.
Curtis added a penalty of his own after Tigers had been whistled at a breakdown and then marched back 10 metres, then Lancaster quickly replied with his first points for the club.
Sharks, though, built on some indiscipline from Tigers to establish territory on their left and they were playing with penalty advantage when they reached the line and Dugdale was able to force his way over. Curtis was off target with the conversion kick from out wide with the score at 25-18.
An enterprising break from van Poortvliet turned defence into attack for Tigers and, when Porter latched on to his offload 30 metres out, his kick took play up to the Sharks line where the defence scrambled back to dot down in-goal.
That gave Tigers a set-piece put-in, but the visitors earned a penalty there which caused some tempers to fray among the respective packs. Referee Andrew Jackson spoke to both captains to calm their teams before restarting.
A break down the left had Tigers back-pedalling and, when Kobus van Wyk made the tackle on Reed, he was then penalised as h contested ball at the breakdown. Sharks used the position to build pressure with their carries among the forward pack but the Tigers defence stood firm on its own line and finally won a penalty award to clear their lines.
A missed lineout, though, gave Sharks another chance to get forward and when they played advantage from the next scrum, centre Luke James found Dugdale in the wide channel and he ran in to score their third try.
With the gap down to two points at 25-23, Curtis was off target with his conversion from the right touchline.
The Tigers scrum came under pressure at the next set-piece but managed to get the ball out and kick-chase from Kobus van Wyk led to an error from the Sharks and a knock-on midway inside their own half.
Dan Richardson made his debut as a late replacement for Whitcombe, with Francois van Wyk moving into the back row while Archie Vanes, Jacob Cusick and Tomiwa Agbongbon were also sent on for a first taste of Tigers senior rugby.
A superb chase and catch from Saumaki had the crowd on their feet and, although Porter was taken into touch just five metres short of the line, Sharks missed their lineout jumper and the Tigers piled forward towards the line.
A penalty award followed and, as the forwards inched towards the tryline, Porter arrived on the right of the ruck and charged over to put the outcome beyond doubt. Lancaster’s conversion added another two points to seal the victory.