Leicester Tigers blew their chance to put themselves in the box seat for the fourth Premiership semi-final spot after shipping 14 unanswered points to suffer a 27-21 defeat by rivals Bath at Twickenham, blowing the top four race wide open in the process.
With Matt O’Connor back at the helm, Leicester made a scintillating start in front of more than 61,000 fans in the ‘Big Clash’, scoring two tries inside the first 12 minutes before Bath stirred into life.
The West Country side has their England superstars to thanks for the turnaround as a score from Jonathan Joseph and two tries from Anthony Watson secured a stirring comeback that moves Todd Blackadder’s side level on points with fourth-placed Leicester with just three rounds remaining before the play-offs commence.
Bath started the match in the same slumber that they finished their last Premiership outing in the 53-10 mauling they received at the hands of Saracens. For 15 minutes they were still asleep, and found themselves 12-0 down as a result.
The first try came in just the fifth minute, and followed a break from South Africa wing JP Pietersen that pierced the Bath defence and took play into the ‘home’ side’s 22. His offload was gathered by the No 8 Luke Hamilton, who was hauled down on the 5m line by a Bath defence that was already scrambling. As the defence fanned out left, the full-back Telusa Veainu surged down the blindside from the base of the ruck and offloaded to Brendan O’Connor, who fended off Tom Ellis’s attempted tackle and completely stood up Matt Banahan to step past the wing as if he wasn’t there to score.
Freddie Burns added the conversion, and just seven minutes later he was lining up another thanks to an individual moment of genius from Veainu. With Bath looking to attack from deep, the England centre Joseph was turned over by the influential O’Connor, although a clear knock-on was missed by the officials in the process of the flanker winning the ball.
With the ball shipped out quickly to first man Veainu, the full-back chipped towards the corner, and outpaced both a recovering Joseph and Banahan to reach the ball first and score, though this time the conversion would be too tricky for Burns.
Eventually awoke from their lull and in short it was thanks to George Ford. The fly-half began to find his legs as he relished the beautiful conditions that the game was played in.
Shortly after the 20 minute mark, Bath began to make inroads into the Leicester half courtesy of strong running from Francois Louw, Watson and Faletau. It would be the Wales No 8 who would trigger the scoring play, taking the ball to the line before passing deep for Ford, who delayed the delivery of the ball that forced Veainu to rush up and give Joseph the space he needed to score in the left corner.
Ford’s conversion reduced the gap to five, before the fly-half added a penalty when his two mazy runs eventually led to Leicester killing the ball in the ruck. However, in the scrum it was the East Midlands side that were enjoying the advantage, with Ellis Genge getting the better of Kane Palma-Newport that allowed Burns to kick his first penalty after the half hour mark.
The Tigers were still proving dangerous though, none more so than when Graham Kitchener barged his way over the line from close range, only to be held up by Watson’s last-ditch tackle, but from the resulting five metre scrum it would be Genge, not Palma-Newport, who would collapse to the turf and the chance went.
The half finished without another point being added, Ford missing a long-range effort at goal in the final play of the first period, but he would make no error after the break as he and Burns traded penalties to give Leicester an 18-13 advantage. The pair will trade places next season, with Ford returning to his former club and Burns heading back to the West Country, yet both were proving why they remain so crucial to each side in the season run-in.
But for Burns it would all end earlier than planned. The fly-half appeared to tweak his leg as he put up a high kick, and despite landing another shot at goal in the 65th minute when Ben Tapuai failed to roll away in the ruck, he would immediately head off with Owen Williams replacing him.
Just like in the first half, Leicester were dominating play but after losing captain Tom Youngs, Mathew Tait and now Burns to injury, this time they lacked the clinical edge they held in the first 15 minutes. They paid the price, as when Bath responded it was emphatic.
Spreading the ball right on the edge of the Leicester 22, Joseph found a charging Faletau on his shoulder who broke the line and surged through Ben Youngs as if he wasn’t there, before sucking in replacement centre Jack Roberts and offloading to Watson to go over.
If the England international was pleased with the score as he celebrated, he was delirious three minutes later. Leicester were on the ropes and when Pietersen deliberately knocked on, he was sent for 10 minutes in the sin-bin. Bath immediately capitalised, spreading play from the ensuing kick to touch from right to left and utilising the overlap superbly. Cutting in from the wing, Banahan created the space next to the touchline by sucking in Veainu and releasing Watson to sprint 30m to score and put Bath in front for the first time, the full-back punching the air in delight.
Finding themselves 27-21 down, Leicester rallied, and when replacement prop Beno Obano joined Pietersen in the sin-bin for repeated scrum infringements, the Tigers attacked. But again the final pass didn’t stick and the end result was Bath moving ahead of them in the battle for fourth place, one that has just been blown wide open.
Bath: Watson; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Tapuai, Banahan; Ford, Fotuali’i (Cook, 74); Catt (Obano, 66), Batty, Palma-Newport (Knight, 57); Ewels, Stooke; Ellis (Denton, 61), Louw, Faletau. Replacements not used: Brooker, Mercer, Priestland, Homer.
Leicester Tigers: Veainu; Thompstone, Tait (Roberts, 48), Mermoz, Pietersen; Burns (O Williams, 65), B Youngs (White, 74); Genge (Rizzo, 74), T Youngs (McGuigan, 40), Cole (Balmain, 74); Barrow, Kitchener; Fitzgerald (M Williams, 64), O’Connor, Hamilton (Thacker, 74).
Referee: JP Doyle