Leicester Tigers Development XV were edged out in a 19-18 defeat by Northampton Wanderers in the opening game of the Premiership Shield season at Loughborough University on Monday evening.
The Tigers fought their way back into the contest in the second half of an enthralling contest between the East Midlands neighbours, but could not find a winning score in the final minutes of the action.
Matt Smith led the Tigers, with Jonah Holmes and Joe Ford also adding some experience in a youthful line-up which included forwards Cameron Jordan, Thom Smith and Taylor Gough from last season’s unbeaten Under-18s squad.
The visitors, winners of the league title at this level in each of the last two seasons, included new signings Taqele Naiyaravoro, Andrew Symons, Will Davis and Charlie Davies alongside senior players Harry Mallinder, Mikey Haywood and Jamal Ford-Robinson.
Tigers led with two Joe Ford penalties before skipper Mallinder got on the end of a break from No8 Mitch Eadie to score the first points for the visitors. James Grayson was unable to add the conversion from the right.
Northampton forced Tigers on to the defensive in the later stages of the first half, with all hands to the pump at a series of set-pieces as they held out near their own line. Penalties counted against Tigers, though, and referee Alexander Thomas yellow-carded lock Sam Lewis just before half-time.
Wanderers, with numerical advantage, went to the corner again to set up prop Davis to burrow over after the initial drive had been held out. Grayson converted to send them in 12-6 ahead at the break.
The lead was extended early in the second half with a try from hooker Haywood following a lineout drive on the right. Grayson added the extra two with the kick.
But even at 6-19 in arrears, Tigers were still in the game and claimed their first try through replacement prop Osman Dimen after the forwards had built a period of pressure close to the visitors’ line.
The Tigers forwards started to get some reward from the set-piece and a series of penalties allowed them to keep Wanderers pinned back in their own half as the period progressed.
From another penalty, and with Connor Tupai in the sin bin, Tigers set up a platform with a drive on the left and when the ball was spread wide, George Worth showed a good eye for a gap, footwork to drift across a tackle and speed to get to the tryline. Ford added the conversion to make it a one-point game with five minutes remaining and set up an exciting close.
Northampton threatened an instant reply as they worked the ball through the middle, but knocked-on in contact and Tigers were able to clear.
Another attack followed, but Tigers won turnover ball on the deck and back-rower Thom Smith showed great purpose as he carried up to the 10-metre line to relieve the pressure.
But Tigers, still also looking for a score to win the game, threw a forward pass in the backline and Wanderers had another chance from a scrum as the clock entered its 80th minute.
The referee gave Tigers a free-kick at the set-piece, though, and they showed plenty of enterprise in keeping the ball alive in search of a decisive score, with forwards Jordan and Smith carrying strongly while Ford and Worth combined to keep the ball moving. Finally, though, Wanderers managed to force an error and shut out a final push to claim the derby points.
Tigers have another home fixture in the Premiership Shield in Round 2 against Worcester Cavaliers next Monday. Kick-off is at 7.30pm at Loughborough University.