Tries from Jordan Crane (2) and Alesana Tuilagi secured a 22-15 victory over Exeter Chiefs while many of the front-runners dropped points on the opening weekend of the new year.
Tigers director of rugby Cockerill said: “It is a good win here. We knew we would get nothing for free and it would be difficult at times, but we came with a huge amount of respect for Exeter and our attitude and physicality were just right.
“Our boys stood up well, our composure was really good. There was a great atmosphere and big crowd and you gave to keep your composure, you’ve got to be accurate and most of the time we managed to do that.
“We scored three tries to nil, though at times it was pretty close. We were a bit workmanlike at times but the tactics were pretty good and we controlled it just enough.”
A crowd of more than 10,000 – including a large travelling contingent from Leicester – enjoyed a hotly-contested match which went right down to the final play of the game when Exeter kicked dead from a penalty inside the Tigers half.
“Exeter are a good side, we saw that at Welford Road earlier in the season,” said Cockerill.
“They are well coached, well drilled, and I have a huge amount of respect for coach Rob Baxter and the club. They have every right to be at the top table. I hope they are successful and go from strength to strength, I’m just happy we’ve managed to come here and take the four points because teams will find it hard here.”
The win took Tigers two points clear at the top of the table, but Cockerill said: “No one will get carried away. There’s still plenty of rugby to be played.
“Some teams have games in hand on us. We have points on the board, we’re in decent form and it is a case of working to keep that going and keep picking up the points wherever you can.”
Tigers now prepare for a top-versus-second local derby against Northampton Saints at Welford Road on Saturday (5pm). Tickets are available now.