Leicester Tigers were beaten 29-21 by Saracens in the opening game of the Premiership Rugby Cup at Allianz Park on Saturday.
The lead changed hands throughout the first half, with Joe Ford kicking three penalties for Tigers before a try from No8 Sione Vailanu gave the hosts a 13-9 advantage at the interval.
A try from Joel Kpoku early in the second half stretched that advantage despite some forceful defence from a young Tigers pack and the lead reached 26-9 before David Feao and then Harry Wells scored to keep a young Tigers team in the contest right into the closing stages.
Tigers included 12 academy graduates in the matchday squad – 11 in the starting team – and recalled Telusa Veainu after injury in a team captained by scrum-half Ben White.
Veainu’s afternoon, though, lasted only 15 minutes as he suffered an ankle injury in a tackle in one of his first touches of the ball.
Tigers won 28-20 on their last visit to Saracens territory, on league duty, back in February and the last three meetings have all been won by the away team on the day.
And it was the visitors who got on the scoreboard first in this opening game in the new-look cup competition ,with Ford landing a 35-metre penalty after strong work by the forwards at a lineout on the left with less than three minutes played.
Sarries responded with possession around the Tigers 22, but defensive line-speed twice forced them into errors until strong work on the floor from lock Joel Kpoku won a penalty which led to their breakthrough try.
After pushing the kick to touch on their left, the Sarries forwards secured ball and kept their patience as they set up a drive, pausing more than once before veteran Schalk Burger reached out to score. Max Malins was just wide with the kick as they led 5-3.
A counter-attack from Matt Gallagher then threatened on the Tigers right before Tommy Reffell got back to force the knock-on.
Veainu’s shift ended when he needed lengthy physio treatment when his left ankle appeared to get caught at the bottom of the tackle and he was carried off, to be replaced by Jonah Holmes.
Play restarted with a Sarries scrum but their loosehead side went to the floor and referee Christophe Ridley awarded the penalty in Tigers’ favour. Ford’s kick from 30 metres out made it 6-5 to the visitors on 16 minutes.
The Saracens forwards attacked the tryline almost immediately afterwards, making five pushes from close range, including two more from Burger, but they were repelled each time and finally knocked-on reaching out for the whitewash.
Thom Smith showed good control in picking up at the base of the five-metre scrum, allowing skipper White to kick clear.
But Sarries went in front again with a penalty from Malins when Reffell was whistled at the breakdown on his own 22.
They threatened even more from the restart when No8 Vailanu charged out of defence before Reffell and Harry Wells made a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown and won a penalty.
The roles were reversed seconds later when Matt Smith carried up to the Sarries 22, only for Burger to force the ball loose in contact.
Ali Crossdale’s break down the right wing after loose ball in midfield had Tigers scrambling across the field, but Jordan Olowofela forced him into touch as he reached the visitors’ 22.
Play was pretty loose but both sides looked determined to keep ball in play as much as possible despite the cold and windy conditions.
Burger was penalised as he rolled out of contact with Wells just after the half-hour mark and Ford, this time from the right-hand side, made no mistake with the kick to make it 8-9.
A charge from prop Titi Lamositele almost brought a scoring chance for Sarries but Tigers defended the line again and when Wells, Thom Smith and Jake Kerr swarmed at a breakdown, the move came to a halt with the referee’s whistle in their favour just five metres from the tryline.
Unfortunately, there was still time for Saracens to claim their second try after winning a penalty near halfway. They took play down the left and, from the lineout, No8 Vailanu broke free to score. Malins got his conversion attempt all wrong but his side led 13-9 at half-time.
Campese Ma’afu replaced David Feao in the Tigers front row at half-time and Tgers had an early penalty when the forwards pushed on from a lineout, just as they had at the start of the opening period. But they were wrapped up in possession from the lineout and Sarries had out-in at the scrum.
They won their first penalty at the set-piece and drilled the kick into the left-hand corner as Feao returned from his HIA protocols.
Tigers continued to defend bravely, with Cameron Jordan bringing Vailunu’s progress to a halt. But the hosts retained ball until Kpoku forced his way over for their third try of the day. Malins added the conversion to stretch the lead to 20-9 with 48 minutes gone.
Another scrum penalty kept Sarries in Tigers territory and they thought they’d got a bonus-point score through wing Elliott Obatoyinbo in the corner. But the referee checked the replays and confirmed a double movement, bringing play back for an offside penalty in front of the posts. Malins knocked over the kick to take his side two converted scores in front at 23-9.
Valentino Mapapalangi replaced Smith in the back row and quickly got hands on the ball as Tigers tried to launch a fightback.
They got a penalty from Mapapalangi’s opening carry but Ford was wide with the kick and Sarries quickly made Tigers pay for the escape when they won a penalty on the floor and Malins kicked his own three-pointer.
Mapapalangi looked like he’d made an instant response, taking ball from a lineout to bully his way into the right-hand corner. But the referee signalled ‘held up’ by Henry Taylor in the tackle and Tigers had to go back to a five-metre scrum.
Feao clamed his first Tigers try with a forceful run after an offload from Sam Lewis, and when Ford added the extras, the deficit was back to 10 points at 26-16.
But Tigers were guilty of attempting to force play soon after the restart and conceded another breakdown penalty 30 metres from their own line, which gave Malins another kicking opportunity. He made no mistake as he made it 29-16 with 13 minutes remaining on the clock.
Fred Tuilagi and Mapalaangi were prominent as Tigers looked for reward from possession in the Sarries 22, and it came with a score from Wells in the left-hand corner after He had set up the initial push with a lineout catch. Ford, from the touchline, was unable to add the extras with Tigers a point shirt of bonus-point range.
The scoreline made for a frantic closing period, and Saracens had a chance to go for a try bonus point in the last few minutes, only for Malins to misjudge his kick on the right and play the ball beyond the corner flag.
But Tigers were unable to find one more opening as Sarries wrapped up Olowofela in midfield to bring the game to a close.