Kearnan Myall’s bonus-point try 90 seconds before the end settled this titanic Premiership derby in Wasps’ favour when it looked as if the match might be heading for the sixth draw in 100 meetings between the old rivals who are now neighbours in the English Midlands.
Former Wasps wing Jonah Holmes collected two tries on his first Premiership start for Leicester since joining from Yorkshire Carnegie in the summer, but it was another ex-Tyke in Myall who grabbed the glory in a nerve-jangling finish as fly-half Danny Cipriani slipped the 30-year-old lock forward through a gap with a trademark, delayed pass.
It was Leicester’s third loss at the Ricoh Arena in 2017, including a Premiership semi-final last May, as Wasps continued on their recent upward trajectory after a couple of early-season losses at home to Harlequins and Bath.
Leicester, who were beaten at home by lowly Worcester last weekend, almost had a try in the opening 60 seconds but they failed to exploit an overlap after centre Gareth Owen was launched through a gap by Ben Youngs.
There was a penalty as Wasps scrambled in defence and Leicester fly-half George Ford stroked it over for a 3-0 lead.
Ford, Youngs and front-row forwards Dan Cole and Ellis Genge were returning from England duty for Leicester, although the club’s leading try scorer Jonny May was ruled out with a knock sustained against Samoa seven days ago.
Wasps had Cipriani making his second appearance after 10 weeks out with a knee injury at fly-half, and Elliot Daly occupied his international position of left wing, but Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes were among five England players missing injured.
Leicester stretched their advantage to 10 points with 13 minutes gone when Ford found a lengthy touch from a penalty, Graham Kitchener caught the line-out throw in the middle, May’s stand-in Holmes made an extra man infield and after a few rucks, captain Tom Youngs trundled over for a try converted by Ford.
Wasps hit back eight minutes later with a third try in four matches by No 8 Nizaam Carr, the South Africa international who is in Coventry on a three-month loan from the Stormers, having won the Currie Cup with Western Province at the end of October.
A line-out on halfway saw Wasps initially forced 10 metres behind the gainline but they stuck at it and Cipriani, Simon McIntyre and James Gaskell combined well to enter the Leicester 22 where scrum-half Dan Robson connected with Carr’s clever support run on a blind angle to send the 26-year-old Springbok galloping to the posts. Jimmy Gopperth converted.
The maintenance of pace in their recycling was crucial for Wasps as they created their second try in the 32nd minute, scored with a sharp snipe by Robson, who must have an eye on the role of back-up No 9 that the England head coach Eddie Jones says he is searching for.
Gopperth’s conversion had Wasps 14-10 up before Leicester, through Genge, conceded a soft penalty round the side of a maul for the second time in the first half and Daly with his famed left boot belted the 50-metre kick on target, for 17-10.
It was the loosehead prop Genge’s penultimate act as he was hurt taking a tackle soon afterwards.
Owen was also forced off and for the umpteenth time in recent seasons Leicester were left with a midfield undermined by the absence of first-choice talent.
Tino Mapapalangi and Sione Kalamafoni gave Tigers some carrying oomph early in the second half, and a deliberate knock-on by Carr’s fellow Springbok, Juan de Jongh, gave Ford a 40-metre penalty but the England No 10’s kick hit the right-hand post.
Leicester cut the gap to two points on 50 minutes, as good handling ended with Mapapalangi offloading out of Christian Wade’s tackle to put Holmes – who left Wasps aged 20 in 2013 having also played for London Welsh – in at the left corner.
And Holmes, the top try scorer in the second-division Championship last year, had his second six minutes later, when he intercepted a lofted pass by Willie le Roux on the Leicester 22-metre line and sprinted clear with a big fend to keep Wade at bay. Ford converted and Tigers were 22-17 up.
Gopperth landed a penalty then Daly ran in Wasps’ third try in a wealth of space made by Wade’s decoy move as Wasps nudged in front again.
Holmes possesses a similar build and running style to May and the 24-year-old very nearly had his hat-trick score for Leicester, only to be stripped of the ball by Robson as he dived for the line.
Ben Youngs tripped over Ashley Johnson behind a ruck in the Wasps 22 and that gave Ford a penalty to tie the scores at 25-25 with 11 minutes remaining.
Josh Bassett went close to a try from a slick move off a scrum, soon after coming on to replace Wade, but Wasps’ front row went down in the next set-piece, which was a feather in the cap of the ever-durable Cole.
So it was left to the hitch-kicking Gaskell and his near namesake James Haskell to be among the handlers in the climactic move of 12 phases before Cipriani’s neat pass slipped Myall through and Gopperth’s conversion completed the job.
“The message in the week was for the forwards to dominate up front and I think we did that,” said Carr. “I have to go back to the Stormers for six months in the New Year but we don’t know what’s going to happen after that.”
Leicester boss Matt O'Connor said: "We ripped in and probably deserved to be closer at the end. The next two weeks in Europe will be huge."
Wasps: tries: Carr, Robson, Daly, Myall; conversions: Gopperth 3; penalties: Daly, Gopperth.
Leicester Tigers: tries: T Youngs, Holmes 2; conversions: G Ford 2; penalties: G Ford 2.
Wasps: W Le Roux; C Wade (rep J Bassett 74th min), J de Jongh (G Lovobalavu 65), J Gopperth, E Daly; D Cipriani, D Robson (J Simpson 70); S McIntyre (B Harris 74), A Johnson (capt; N Charles 77), J Cooper-Woolley (M Moore 67), J Gaskell, K Myall, J Haskell, T Young (J Willis 60), N Carr.
Leicester Tigers: T Veainu; A Thompstone, M Tait, G Owen (M Smith 34), J Holmes; G Ford, B Youngs; E Genge (L Mulipola 40), T Youngs (capt; H Thacker 58), D Cole, M Fitzgerald (H Wells 70), G Kitchener, V Mapapalangi (M Williams 70), W Evans, S Kalamafoni.
Referee: T Foley (RFU).
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