Heroic fightbacks may be laudable, but giving the opposition a 16-point start almost looked laughable as Leicester Tigers bowed out of the Heineken Cup with a 22-16 defeat at Clermont Auvergne.
Tigers trailed 16-0 after 35 minutes at Stade Marcel-Michelin where Clermont took their unbeaten run to 75 games. Jordan Crane’s try sparked a spirited fightback and the boot of Owen Williams helped to take the former trophy winners come close to an upset until their charge was halted by a yellow card for Thomas Waldrom when they tailed only 19-16.
Clermont dominated the first half through the boot of Morgan Parra that they led 19-7 at the break. Leicester fed off scraps but had an early glimpse when Jamie Gibson’s turnover allowed Manu Tuilagi to break, only for Mathew Tait to knock-on. That allowed Wesley Fofana to launch a counter-attack, that was halted by Vereniki Goneva.
Fofana threatened with his footwork whenever he touched the ball and was again involved for the opening points on 13 minutes. Thomas Domingo bashed through Louis Deacon and Fofana followed to earn a penalty.
It was to be a familiar story by half-time. Leicester paid the price for twice failing to stop Aurélien Rougerie as he drifted across to combine with his midfield partner. Fofana’s quick-hands released Davit Zirakashvili before racing on to the prop’s well-timed return pass to score in the 22nd minute. Parra converted from wide and added two more penalties, either side of Williams’ striking the post, to steer Clermont further ahead.
Clermont went close to scoring a second try when Noa Nakaitaci and Jean-Marcellin Buttin combined but Tigers got enough bodies under Zirakashvili to prevent the prop grounding the ball over the line.
Leicester also repelled a strong surge by the No8 Fritz Lee off the resulting scrum and Julian Salvi seemed to have pulled off a crucial steal, only to be penalised for holding onto the ball and Parra extended Clermont’s lead to 16-0.
With defeat looming Crane offered a lifeline before half-time. Williams found Gibson in acres of space with a pin-point cross-field kick and Blaine Scully drew the last two defenders to hand Crane an easy finish close to the posts. Parra struck a third penalty on the stroke of half-time but the try, which was converted by Williams, had shifted the balance in power towards Leicester.
They were far more competitive at the breakdown and, at last, their backs had possession to play with.Goneva stepped through tackles on a mazy run as Tigers burst out of defence with Anthony Allen and Tait. Tuilagi looked to have broken clear but was hauled into touch by Naipolioni Nalaga.
Scully out-jumped two defenders as Williams almost worked a second score with another kick across field but the scoring pass eluded them. The Welshman did kick three penalties while Parra and Brock James both fired wide to slash the deficit to 19-16 on the hour.
Nerves had crept in to the home team ranks as their lead dwindled until Waldrom, on the field for only three minutes as a replacement, was binned for illegally trying to prevent a Clermont drive rumbling on.
Parra kicked his fifth penalty but they were the only points Leicester conceded in the 10-minute spell to set up a tense finale but the Tigers go no closer to the line than a surge that took them to two metres out.
Clermont Auvergne: Buttin; Nakaitaci, Rougerie, Fofana, Nalaga; James, Parra; Domingo (Debaty, 49). Kayser (Paulo, 51), Zirakashvili (Ric, 68), Cudmore, Hines (Pierre, 75), Bonnaire, Chouly, Lee (Bardy, 70).
Leicester Tigers: Tait; Scully, Tuilagi, Allen, Goneva; Williams (Flood, 75), B Youngs (Mele, 75); Ayerza (Stankovich, 75), T Youngs, Mulipola, Deacon (Kitchener, 57), Slater, Gibson, Salvi, Crane (Waldrom, 61).
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ire).