Leicester Tigers were beaten 25-19 by Sale Sharks in the opening round of the Premiership Rugby Cup opening game on Tuesday evening.
Both sides scored three tries, with a young Tigers team starting strongly enough to take a seven-point lead with a penalty try before Sharks fought back to lead 10-7 at the break.
They extended with two tries early in the second half but Tigers replied with two of their own, from Tom Horton and Lewis Chessum in the space of three minutes to bring it back to 22-19 with 20 minutes left to play but could not find another score to take more than the single point from the trip.
Tigers captain Whitcombe was among 12 graduates of the club’s academy in the matchday squad, with brothers Tom and Josh Manz making their senior debuts together in the pack and lock Robert Carmichael also earning his first senior outing from the bench. Tom Horton and full-back Lachlan Shelley also earned a first appearance alongside three loan signings .
Tigers, in red shirts and white shorts, dominated early possession and got their reward with the first points after eight minutes thanks to a penalty try.
Joe Browning on the right and Shelley near the posts had already threatened the tryline when a lineout drive was pulled down illegally and referee Hamish Smales awarded the seven-point score, also issuing a yellow card to former Tigers forward Dom Barrow.
Kieran Wilkinson pulled a penalty wide after a whistle for offside but landed his second chance after 20 minutes with Sale’s opening points.
Jed Walsh turned down a potential kick at goal for Tigers as Sean Jansen won a penalty on the floor, and the No8 was in the thick of the action again from the lineout on the right, wrestling for possession which eventually gained another penalty for a maul collapse.
The whistle went for a third time at the lineout, but Tigers lost control of the ball as they began a push for the line.
Sam Edwards had to cover a break by opposite number Nye Thomas, with Shelley getting across quickly to play into touch.
But Sharks made the most of the field position, pushing on through the forwards until back-rower Sam Dugdale reached the tryline to the left of the posts and Wilkinson added the extras for a 10-7 lead.
Scrum-half Thomas was then pushed back under pressure from Whitcombe and Jacob Cusick, but the whistle went again as Tigers contested ball on the floor near halfway. This time, Sharks played through the forwards until Emeka Ilione made an important tackle and gain a penalty award directly in front of the posts.
The half ended with the hosts still three points in front and they almost increased the advantage at the restart before being held up over the tryline by the Tigers forwards.
Ilione’s turnover paused another Sharks attack but two tries in a five-minute spell put them in control of the scoreboard.
The first came after Dugdale was stopped just short with an ankle tap, Sale keeping ball until wing Arron Reed found a gap on the right to run in. Then, after Wilkinson’s conversion, they attacked again and skipper Josh Beaumont made the final push to score and increase the lead to 22-7 on 50 minutes.
Tigers replied immediately, driving from a 15-metre lineout for Tom Horton to score on his debut. Walsh missed with the conversion, having to pick it up and drop-kick after the ball fell off the tee.
Only two more minutes had elapsed when Lewis Chessum added a third try, charging down a kick and then accepting the bouncing ball to run in from 20 metres out. Walsh added the conversion to make it 22-19.
Penalties on contact earned by Josh Manz and then Ilione took Tigers forward again, though play remained locked in the middle third of the field as the clock ticked towards the final 10 minutes.
Nephi Leatigaga’s offload to Joseph Woodward almost prised an opening before Sharks covered in defence on their 22, but Tigers then over-cooked a kick to the corner from a penalty award.
Play stayed at the Sale end until they swarmed over a tackled player on the floor to win a penalty, but Chessum stepped in to steal lineout ball and avert any danger.
Sale, though, broke out from deep and when they were awarded a penalty, Wilkinson put some light between the teams with the kick in the 78th minute.