As much as Leicester had been chastened by the previous week's defeat by Harlequins here, they were entitled to pat themselves on the back at the response. Though not quite down to the last man standing, the nine-times former champions had a first team's-worth of players out injured or otherwise unavailable yet smashed any thoughts of Exeter adding to the league double achieved by the Chiefs last season.
Leicester's scrum and driving maul were in witheringly good working order and at fly-half Toby Flood was able to get away with a couple of duff passes in the first half to provide enough assured and skilful touches to help create a hat-trick of tries for the wing Adam Thompstone, who was promoted to his first start for Leicester when Scott Hamilton pulled out with a dodgy quad.
The 25-year-old Thompstone joined from London Irish in the summer after an injury-disrupted four years of 17 tries in 62 appearances, and promptly damaged a disc in his neck in a pre-season friendly in Jersey. In that sense he may have felt an immediate sense of belonging, as the Tigers have an injury list as long as a lock-forward's arm.
"There were opportunities we didn't take but considering the issues we've had with withdrawals we're pleased," said Richard Cockerill, Leicester's director of rugby. "Everyone is quick to praise Exeter when they have done well, but we played well and our defence stopped them playing." Hamilton and the front-rowers George Chuter (calf) and Boris Stankovich ("being ill at both ends," Cockerill graphically reported) were the late cry-offs.
Daniel Bowden, another former London Irishman making his first Leicester appearance in the crucial inside-centre role, went off with rib trouble, and the flanker Julian Salvi was substituted after a bang on the head. On the flipside Ben Youngs, Steve Mafi and Manu Tuilagi are due back at Sale next Friday, while Mathew Tait will play for the A team tomorrow. That still leaves Tom Croft, Geordan Murphy, Louis Deacon, Rob Hawkins and Ed Slater among the crocks, Marcos Ayerza away with Argentina and of course the most unfortunate – Craig Newby and Ben Woods – who retired before a ball was passed.
Exeter struggled to generate any worthwhile momentum. Cockerill's counterpart, Rob Baxter, tends to meet triumph and disaster with a Roger Moore raise of the eyebrow but even he was obliged to question the latest confusing application of the television match official trial.
The Chiefs' fly-half, Ignacio Mieres, was blatantly tackled off the ball by Tom Waldrom in the run-up to Thompstone's second try in the 46th minute, but the TMO checked only for a Leicester knock-on.
"All the coaches are looking at it [the TMO trial] and shaking their heads," said Baxter. "But I'm not going to run away from the result and make excuses. Our set-piece wasn't good enough and we coughed up ball on the floor."
The Leicester centre Matt Smith got engaged on Friday, but Monday had been different: an old-fashioned dressing-down from the coaches followed by what he called "pretty fierce" training.
The desired reaction came after six minutes when from a line-out on the Leicester 10-metre line the Tigers went through multiple phases, Bowden filled in at scrum-half and Flood, Vereniki Goneva and Waldrom sent Thompstone streaking in at the right-hand corner. With Flood's conversion – he added the extras to Thompstone's other tries too – it had Leicester 7-3 up after an initial penalty by Mieres.
Tom Johnson, the England flanker back for Exeter after a rib injury, ran hard and straight as always but Mieres was unlucky to miss with two monstrous penalty attempts.
Flood's three kicks from shorter range created a 13-point gap at the interval. The third of them was Cockerill's call overruling the England fly-half; Flood had put the ball into touch for an attacking line-out but the coach had already ordered the kicking tee on to the field.
In a tighter match it might have produced a tasty row but Leicester merely cantered onwards, when a fluffed Exeter line-out led to Mieres's controversial moment with Waldrom, from which Flood brilliantly flicked the ball up with the outside of his right boot to Smith, who fed Thompstone via Bowden.
All Exeter hopes went west when Mieres overdid a kick to touch to make it dead, and Chris Whitehead overthrew a well-placed line-out. With 15 minutes remaining Leicester swept left to right, with Flood involved, for Smith to grubber nicely through the Exeter line and Thompstone to gather and race to the posts. Ben White's burrowing try for Exeter at the death took up another three minutes of TMO time that would been better spent celebrating Thompstone as the eighth Tiger to score a hat-trick on his first start and only the second in 77 years after Marika Vunibaka's in 1997.
Leicester Morris; Thompstone, Smith, Bowden (Allen, 49), Goneva; Flood (Ford, 66), Harrison (Phibbs, 66); Mulipola (Balmain, 66), Youngs (Stevens, 71), Cole (Castrogiovanni, 59), Kitchener, Parling, Crane (capt; Slater, 61), Waldrom, Salvi (Deacon, 38).
Exeter Arscott; Whitten, Naqelevuki, Shoemark (Dollman, 65), Jess; Mieres (Steenson, 66), Thomas (Chudley, 50); Sturgess (Moon, 61), Whitehead (Alcott, 66), Rimmer (Brown, 77), Hayes (capt), Hanks (Muldowney, 56), Johnson (White, 61), Baxter, Scaysbrook.
Referee T Wrigglesworth (Yorkshire).
Tries: Thompstone 3
Cons: Flood 3
Pens: Flood 3
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