Leicester Tigers edged out Montpellier in an electrifying Heineken Cup Round 3 thriller at Welford Road that saw both teams collect a four-try bonus point.
The Tigers pulled way out in front multiple times, with three tries scored in the opening 15 minutes, but Montpellier fought back again and again, firstly with two scores late in the second half, and again with two tries from Pierre Berard, which came after Jamie Gibson grabbed the bonus point for the hosts.
It was without a doubt the most inspired team performance from the Tigers this season in any competition. In spite of their long list of absentees, they played with great skill and fluidity, with the notable standouts being Tom Youngs, double try scorer Miles Benjamin and Vereniki Goneva, who was making his first start after recovering from injury.
Leicester made their mark on the game immediately, as Goneva raced onto a difficult pass on the Montpellier 22 and evaded two tackles for a try. With Toby Flood’s conversion, the hosts led 7-0 within five minutes of kick-off.
Flood added to his tally a minute later when Montpellier were penalised for holding on, allowing the Leicester captain to strike a straightforward penalty. Jonathan Pélissié then responded with a penalty kick of his own when the hosts committed an offside infringement.
For much of the first half, Goneva was the instrumental player and showed no signs of having been out for several weeks as he masterminded Leicester’s early attacks. The Fijian flyer made the initial break before the ball was worked out left to young winger Miles Benjamin, who snaked through the Montpellier defence with an exceptional weaving run to touch down in the corner.
Moments after Flood landed his second conversion, Benjamin bagged his second try almost straight away in the same corner. Having stolen possession in their own half, the Tigers broke out, with full-back Scott Hamilton drawing in Timoci Nagusa before passing to Goneva, who played in Benjamin for the try. Flood converted for the third time, and the game seemed as good as won for Leicester inside quarter of an hour.
Trailing by 21 points, Montpellier already had a huge task ahead of them if they were to get anything out of the match. They could only make a small dent in the deficit when Pélissié slotted his second penalty.
The Tigers pressed for the all-important bonus-point try, but although they looked the more dangerous team in attack, it was the visitors who touched down next, as a lapse in concentration from the home side enabled Georgian flanker Mamuka Gorgodze to split the defence and run 50 metres for a try under the posts. Pélissié converted, and suddenly, the 11 point margin did not appear so insurmountable.
The match continued to progress at an incredible lightning pace, as Leicester came close to scoring their fourth try. Again, Goneva was the creator, bursting forward and offloading to Tom Youngs, but the hooker could not quite gather the low pass for a score in the corner.
Montpellier then closed the gap further on the stroke of half-time, in a series of phases that began with outstanding movement from Rene Ranger and finished with Timoci Nagusa receiving the ball on the overlap and grounding the try. With the first-half ending at 24-18, both sides were still very much in the game despite the Tigers pulling far ahead early on.
The intensity of the first period remained as the second period begun, with the passage of play shifting from end to end and both teams intercepting the ball in promising positions in the first 10 minutes of the half. Jonathan Pélissié missed an early penalty attempt, while Toby Flood was more accurate from the spot and extended Leicester’s lead to 9.
At last, on the hour mark, the Tigers secured their bonus point. After winning a scrum on Montpellier’s 5m line, flanker Jamie Gibson peeled away at the blindside and bundled across the try line. Flood sent the conversion wide, but found the target with a penalty shortly afterwards.
Despite now being behind by 17 points, Montpellier continued to attack energetically and ferociously. Against the run of play, Nagusa broke out and delayed his pass to replacement Pierre Berard, who ran in under the posts with his first touch of the ball.
Pélissié converted, and just a couple of minutes later, the visiting team appeared to have gotten another try, as Montpellier’s backs penetrated the line again on the right-hand side, enabling Nagusa to cross the try line. However, the TMO spotted a forward pass in the build-up play and the try was disallowed.
Flood landed yet another penalty for the Tigers, this time from long range, but Montpellier remained on the offensive in the last 10 minutes. Through a sequence of brilliant switch passing, Pierre Berard found space on the right to score his second try, giving the visitors a four-try bonus point of their own, whilst Francois Trinh-Duc slotted the conversion.
Finally, in the last act of the game, Leicester’s substitute fly-half Ryan Lamb slotted a neat drop-goal, depriving Montpellier of a losing bonus point as the match finished 41-32 to the home side.
Following this emphatic victory, Leicester Tigers remained in second place in Pool 5, two points behind leaders Ulster, but based on the astounding efforts of this latest game, they look well poised to gain qualification to the Heineken Cup knock-out rounds.