It was a moment of genius by Ben Youngs that lit up this largely forgettable contest and the England scrum-half’s stunning solo try looks to have landed a critical blow in the race for place in the Premiership top-four play-offs.
Youngs’ breathtaking intervention in the 73rd minute clinched the bonus-point for Leicester and the celebrations at Welford Road intensified when news landed that Bath had lost at Worcester.
Leicester’s play-off hopes looked to have been dashed by Bath at Twickenham last weekend but the momentum has swung back in their favour.
“We knew we had to get it (the bonus point) and we eventually got it in the end,” said Youngs, who is certain to be named in the British and Irish Lions squad as one of the three scrum-halves on Wednesday.
“I am delighted we got there, I think we made hard work of it and I don’t know how many errors we made and unforced errors but we did the business and we will regroup.”
It provided the rousing finish to Matt O’Connor’s first game in charge since taking over from Aaron Mauger and the Australian was fulsome in his praise of Youngs.
“He is a world class nine, he delivers that for England every time he plays and we want to put the ball in his hands and challenge defenders in and around the ball and he is as good as there is,” said O’Connor.
“He’s is as good as there is at nine in the world at the moment. The added responsibility of being captain worked in his favour, he’s a world class player that delivers most weeks.
A Lion-in-waiting? “I’d say so, how could you not pick him?
Leicester’s victory opens up a four-point lead ahead of Bath with just two rounds remaining and the Tigers now have two weeks to prepare for the visit of Sale Sharks to Welford Road before their final match away at Worcester.
Bath’s route to the play-offs looks more arduous as Todd Blackadder’s side have a Challenge Cup quarter-final next weekend before entertaining Gloucester at The Rec before a trip to Sale Sharks.
While Ellis Genge underscored his own credentials as a prop with bags of international potential by crossing for two tries, it was Youngs’ mesmeric all-round display that deservedly earned him the man-of-the-match.
It took a try-saving tackle by the Leicester scrum-half on former Tigers’ favourite Vereniki Goneva to prevent Newcastle from taking a surprise lead in the first-half that was reduced to a kicking duel between Freddie Burns and Joel Hodgson.
Then, after Genge managed to scramble over for his first try in the final minute of the first half to established an 13-3 lead, Youngs was instrumental in delivering the flat pass and switch of the point of attack that resulted in Genge’s second score.
The coup de grace however was reserved for his final contribution to the game and it finally brought a largely frustrated Welford Road crowd to their feet.
Youngs, scenting that the Newcastle forwards were wilting, quickly tapped a penalty and soared his way around five back-tracking defenders to score from 30 metres out for the decisive score.
O’Connor was in buoyant mood despite of the error-ridden display, particularly in the first half when Leicester appeared to drop as many passes as they caught.
“Expectation only drives the place on and we want to be there or thereabouts. The stakes are huge and we have got to make sure that we deliver.”
It seems that the Leicester players will have little time to celebrate their victory. With a two-week preparation for the Sale game, they can expect several hard sessions next week, with O’Connor claiming he hopes to improve the level of their performance by “25 to 30 per cent”.
That would seem a realistic target given the woeful action in the first half, when Leicester compounded mistake by mistake as they failed to translate their possession and territorial advantage into points.
The strong wind, which Leicester opted to play into in the first half, did not help, but it did not excuse their profligacy.
Two penalties, one for a high tackle and one for not rolling away, gave Leicester the early momentum and Burns landed his first penalty in the fifth minute. But the dominant start failed to materialise.
A forward pass by JP Pietersen to Brendan O’Connor squandered another attacking platform after a series of probes while Graham Kitchener typified Leicester’s frustration as he was penalised as he attempted to steal a ball from the base of a ruck allowed Hodgson to level the scores in the 25th minute.
The game desperately needed a try by it almost came from Newcastle, with a fine break by Will Welch creating the space for Goneva to charge at the Leicester line, with Youngs on hand to prevent the try.
A huge hit by Newcastle flanker Evan Olmstead felled Youngs to halt another Leicester attack, but Burns was at least able to land his second penalty before Genge settled the nerves with his first try.
Leicester’s dominant scrum resulted in a yellow card for Newcastle prop Davy Wilson at the start of the second half and the Tigers struck, with full-back Telusa Veainu going before Genge and Youngs completed the victory.
“[Bath] were pretty happy last week when they won so I thought it would be pretty difficult for them to get the mindset right,” O’Connor added.
“We’ve got two games and we’re not really interested in anything we can’t control. There’s huge grow in us, 20, 30, 40% to come. Tighten up the set piece, tighten up the ball security and we’re good enough to beat anybody.”