Tigers battle past Chiefs to claim top spot
January 2, 2011
Leicester's Alesana Tuilagi evades Exeter's Mark Foster during their clash at Sandy Park
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Leicester Tigers claimed top spot in the Aviva Premiership with a hard-fought 22-15 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
Two tries from No.8 Jordan Crane and another from winger Alesana Tuilagi propelled the Tigers to their eight win of the campaign that sees them leap-frog Northampton at the top of the table ahead of their much-anticipated showdown next weekend. Fly-half Jeremy Staunton weighed in with a penalty and a conversion while Toby Flood also notched a penalty on his return from injury.
The boot of Ryan Davis kept the gutsy Chiefs in the contest throughout and gave the bumper 10,495 crowd plenty to shout about with Gareth Steenson also making a successful return from injury but in the end they lacked the precision to add another chapter to a round of Premiership upsets.
Leicester silenced the vociferous home fans with the first try of the game after just two minutes. Staunton cleared his lines and the bounce of the ball cruelly evaded Exeter wing Mark Foster but not Tigers speedster Alesana Tuilagi who pounced before feeding his brother Manu with an inside pass. The younger Tuilagi injected a burst of speed to take the game deep into the Chiefs' 22 before returning the ball to his brother who dived over in the corner for a try.
Staunton was unable to add the extras but Davis made no mistake from the kicking tee shortly after his forwards had earned due reward for a powerful riposte. The Tigers' pack gave as good as they got up front and a penalty against Exeter centre Jason Shoemark for not releasing allowed Staunton to open his account and edge Leicester further ahead.
Tempers flared on more than one occasion in the cauldron-like atmosphere but it was the Chiefs who kept their cool with another penalty - this time against Tigers hooker George Chuter at the breakdown - enabled Davis to notch his second penalty.
A chip through from flanker James Scaysbrook then forced Leicester into some desperate defence with scrum-half Ben Youngs showing his pace in remedying the situation at the cost of a scrum but his forwards laid down an impressive marker at the set piece to snuff out the danger. An offside offence against Tigers lock Ed Slater soon offered Davis a chance to give the hosts the lead but he pushed the relatively easy effort wide of the posts.
The Tigers stretched the Chiefs' defence on the half-hour mark and a deliberate knock on from centre Sireli Naqelevuki handed the visitors another penalty but this time they opted to turn the screw at a scrum. Manu Tuilagi took the Tigers close with a dangerous blend of power and pace before the ball was recycled by Youngs who fed No.8 Crane for a try that was converted by Staunton.
Back came the Chiefs with some impressive muscle of their own and when the Tigers were penalised for not rolling away Davis stepped up to land his third penalty to reduce the arrears to six points as they headed into the break.
Leicester began the second half strongly with Manu Tuilagi bundled into touch as he closed in on the corner but the Tigers snaffled the ball at the resulting lineout and launched a series of raids on the Exeter line. The Chiefs' defence stood up to wave after wave of attack and eventually cleared their lines with a wayward drop-goal attempt from Leicester fullback Geordan Murphy bringing an end to a bruising opening.
It was then the Chiefs' turn to step things up with a dart upfield from Davis raising the home crowd's hopes before a knock on from scrum-half Haydn Thomas brought an end to the move. A sparking run from Youngs was then matched by another from Foster but neither broke the deadlock and instead it was Davis that notched the first points of the second half with his fourth penalty. The Exeter playmaker's latest kicking success coincided with Toby Flood's introduction for Leicester but the England No.10 was wide with his first penalty attempt after his opposite number had drifted offside.
The crowd were on their feet as the Chiefs charged forward following a kick ahead by fullback Luke Arscott but the Tigers scrambled back to snuff out the danger at the cost of a penalty inside their own 22. Davis pulled the subsequent kick wide of the uprights in a major let-off for the hosts who were also to escape further sanction from referee JP Doyle. The ruthless Tigers then struck with a decisive score. Flood was hauled down just short of the line as the otherwise resolute Exeter defence began to creak and Youngs recycled the ball with a delightful delayed pass to Crane who forced his way over from close range for his second try that was converted by Flood.
The game not over though with replacement fly-half Gareth Steenson, on his first outing following a three-month injury lay-off, slotting a penalty after Leicester's Craig Newby had been penalised for not rolling away. And the returning No.10 went desperately close to closing the gap a couple of minutes later with his kick striking the crossbar and in the end they had to settle for a losing bonus point.
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