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In a topsy-turvy encounter that was played at break-neck speed, London Irish were punished for chasing the game at the death as a pass failed to find its intended recipient, leaving replacement back-rower Croft with a free passage under the posts with time up on the clock.
It was a great advertisement for the Aviva Premiership with both sides wanting to play. Irish showed a lot of heart and passion right until the end, but unfortunately, on this occasion, it was not enough.
On a pristine surface bathed in sunshine, the Exiles set their stall out with some expansive passing movements from the start and took the lead on five minutes thanks to a penalty from Tom Homer.
The Exiles were the far more dominate side in the opening 10 minutes and could have crossed the line first. Steven Shingler broke down the right hand flank and was tackled agonisingly short of the line by the Tigers number 8, Thomas Waldrom. The Irish build up play was magnificent, with the outside backs playing a key role, especially Joe Ansbro who made the initial break.
Irish finally got their reward for sustained pressure when Dan Bowden stepped back into the pocket and slotted a superb drop goal after 15 minutes.
After a long delay at the set piece Leicester went over for their first try of the afternoon courtesy of Toby Flood. The two packs of forwards had re-set after re-set scrum five metres out from the Exiles line and when the ball was finally release to Toby Flood, the England international crossed off an arcing run. The fly half’s attempted conversion, which was certainly kickable, was charged down by Darren Allinson.
With the momentum with them, the Tigers crossed for their second try. Keeping the ball tight proved to be effective and when the chance arose Julian Salvi was on hand to dive over and dot the ball over the line. Flood made no mistake with the conversion and the Tigers found themselves with a six point lead.
Tom Homer cut the deficit to just three points with a well taken penalty after Dan Cole dropped his bind at the scrum against Alex Corbisiero. Things got better for the Exiles when Bryn Evans crossed for his second try for the club.
Jamie Gibson won the ball at the line out and tapped down to Darren Allinson who scythed through the Leicester forwards before drawing the Leicester covering defender and allowing Evans a run in from 20 metres out. Homer added the extras and sent Irish into the break with a four point advantage.
The visitors drew first blood in the second half as Toby Flood kicked the visitors back within a point five minutes in. They dominated territory and possession during this period and got three points for their efforts.
The Tigers edged in front just after 50 minutes with another penalty at a point when the game was lacking rhythm and pace. This all changed moments later when Tom Homer crossed for a superb individual effort. Jamie Gibson regathered the re-start when he had no right to. The ball was fed wide to Homer, who looked to be running down a blind alley. He brushed off the attempted Leicester tackles, rounded the full back and dotted down next to the post before showing his acrobatical skills with a somersault. He added the conversion to make it London Irish 23 Leicester 18.
The Tigers reply was emphatic. Toby Flood closed the gap with a penalty, before Manu Tuilagi scored under the posts to put Leicester in front.
The visitors were controlling the tempo and playing to their strengths by keeping the ball tight in their forward pack. Discipline cost Irish and Flood kicked his fifth penalty of the afternoon. Homer replied to keep the Exiles in touch.
The young fullback kicked another long range penalty shortly after to make it a two point ball game before converting his most difficult kick of the game to give Irish a one point lead going into the final three minutes.
Toby Flood put Leicester back in front with a minute to go to set up a tense finale before Tom Croft crossed for another Leicester try as the Exiles chanced their arm. Flood added the conversion and Leicester won 41-32.
Score sequence (London Irish first): 3-0, 6-0, 6-5, 6-12, 9-12, 16-12, 16-15, 16-18, 23-18, 23-21, 23-28, 23-31, 26-31, 29-31, 32-31, 32-34, 32-41
Scorers: London Irish; Penalties: Homer (5, 33, 70, 73, 77); Drop goal: Bowden (14); Tries: Evans (36), Homer (53); Conversions: Homer (2); Leicester: Tries: Flood (23), Salvi (27), Tuilagi (60), Croft (80); Conversions: Flood 3; Penalties Flood (45, 52, 56, 68, 79)
London Irish team
15. Tom Homer; 14. Marland Yarde (rep: Delon Allinson, 68); 13. Joe Ansbro; 12. Steven Shingler; 11. Sailosi Tagicakibau; 10. Daniel Bowden; 9. Darren Allinson (rep: Paul Hodgson, 68); 1. Alex Corbisiero (rep: Max Lahiff, 45); 2. David Paice (rep: James Buckland, 49); 3. Faan Rautenbach (rep: Paulica Ion, 32); 4. Nick Kennedy (Captain); 5. Bryn Evans (rep: Bob Casey, 68); 6. Matt Garvey (rep: Ofisa Treviranus, 60); 7. Declan Danaher; 8. Jamie Gibson (rep: Alex Gray, 68)
Replacements: 16. James Buckland; 17. Max Lahiff; 18. Paulica Ion; 19. Bob Casey; 20. Alex Gray; 21. Ofisa Treviranus; 22. Delon Armitage; 23. Paul Hodgson
Leicester Tigers team
15. Geordan Murphy (Captain); 14. Horacio Agulla; 13. Manu Tuilagi; 12. Billy Twelvetrees; 11. Scott Hamilton; 10. Toby Flood; 9. Ben Youngs (rep: James Grindall, 61); 1. Marcos Ayerza (rep: Logovi’i Munipola ; 2. George Chuter; 3. Dan Cole (rep: Martin Castrogiovanni, 53); 4. George Skivington; 5. Geoff Parling; 6. Steve Mafi (rep: Tom Croft, 53); 7. Julian Salvi; 8. Thomas Waldrom
Replacements: 16. Tom Youngs; 17. Martin Castrogiovanni; 18. Logovi’i Munipola; 19. Tom Croft; 20. Craig Newby; 21. James Grindall; 22. Anthony Allen; 23. Matt Smith
Referee: Dean Richards
Attendance: 20, 905