It’s rare Leicester Tigers are underdogs, particularly at their Welford Road home, but make no mistake Harlequins were favourite to win on Saturday.
However no one told that to the Tigers, who turned on the power when it was needed to score a late try from a catch and drive line out through replacement backrow Laurence Pearce to win 22-19.
The most encouraging sign for Leicester fans is they also showed some brilliantly astute, and you might say cynical, game management.
In the closing stages Tigers’ backs were against the wall, Harlequins had their maul chugging away like a tractor, but twice Leicester found a way of halting them in their tracks.
Scrum half Sam Harrison sacrificed himself, earning yellow for bringing down the first powerful drive, and the visitors were unfortunate not to get a penalty try from referee Tom Foley. But luck was on Leicester’s side as they start to rebuild fortress Welford Road, having only lost once in their last 18 league games at home.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “There was certainly spirit, guts and plenty of heart.
“It wasn’t a great performance, but we take the win, the points will be huge in the season.
“We surrendered ball too easily, did not exit our own half well enough and put pressure on ourselves. We had a couple of opportunities in the first half and didn’t take them so then it becomes an arm wrestle. We’ll take the four points and move on knowing we have to get better.
“It was a pretty flat game and we’ve got to be better. But the win gives us a chance to develop and improve on the back of four points. When the moment comes you have to front up - and we fronted up.”
Leicester’s stand out performers were a pair of players battling for the 10 jersey.
Starting fly half Tommy Bell, who was signed from Jersey last season, and is widely regarded as the club’s third choice ten was superb.
The 22-year-old kicked 15 points to add to his 23 points against London Irish a week earlier. One penalty on Sunday was scored from inside his own half and still has 15 metres to spare, meaning Leicester are now a threat from anywhere within 60-70 metres of the posts.
And this summer the Leicester pitch has been made both longer and wider so it really was a mammoth kick.
However Bell went off limping when he was clattered into the side hoardings by Marland Yarde, replaced at fly-half by Welshman Owen Williams.
He was already on the pitch at centre having come on for Seremaia Bai after less than 10 minutes when the Fijian was poleaxed in a huge collision with Harlequins number eight Matt Luamanu.
Williams, who is still coming back from a serious knee injury, looked composed back at ten and put in a stunning ‘spaceship’ kick to the corner to set up the Pearce try with eight minutes left to play.
He then slotted the conversion as well to give Leicester some breathing room.
With Rhys Priestland taking an 18-month break from international rugby, if Williams can lock down the Tigers’ ten shirt then he will probably be making his Wales debut before not too long, as back up to Dan Biggar.
Cockerill said: “It’s great to get Owen back out on the pitch and he’s got almost a full game under his belt.
“He’s has a great attitude and I thought he did really well at 12 and 10. The kick to the corner off the outside of the boot was as good as you will see and the forwards got the energy to score from that. The conversion was huge for us too.”
Harlequins got a try through blindside flanker Jack Clifford and a conversion and four penalties from Nick Evans.
A little piece of Tigers history was made late in the game on Sunday when replacement scrum-half Ben White, a 17-year-old Leicester Grammar School pupil, become the second youngest player to appear in the Aviva Premiership after former Leeds player David Doherty, and Leicester’s youngest ever player.
However with Jono Kitto now training with the squad he is unlikely to be involved when Tigers take on Wasps at home on Sunday.
Also joining up with Leicester this week is Kiwi openside flanker Brendon O’Connor who signed off his time in New Zealand by lifting the ITM Cup with Hawkes Bay, playing an important pass in the game winning try and then winning a turn over to secure the victory.
The club’s have finally locked down the signature of South African captain Jean de Villiers.
Cockerill said: “He is among the leading centres in the modern game and has played at the very highest level for a significant period of time.”
Centre de Villiers, 34, has 109 caps for the Spring Boks is the club’s first marquee signing. De Villiers will join up with the squad in December as he recover from a broken jaw which ended his World Cup early.
There are no Tigers players left in the Rugby World Cup after prop Marcos Ayerza’s Argentina were knocked out in the semi-finals on Sunday, going down 29-15 to Australia.
That sets up a Bledisloe Cup final between the Wallabies and New Zealand, who showed how to win a tight match in tough weather condiditions with a 20-18 victory over South Africa on Saturday.
Ayerza still has the third place play-off game to play on Friday night before he can return to Welford Road to rejoin the Leicester squad.
Australia and New Zealand are worthy finalists, having put in two of the best performances of the World Cup. However beaten semi-finalists Argentina are hard not to love. The Pumas played a warm-up game against Tigers and played two of their group stage matches in the city - so they were very much Leicester’s team in the competition.
Their cavalier, swashbuckling style of rugby, combined with a mighty set piece in the scrum, has been an absolute joy to watch during the competition, and all their matches have been played to a deafening sound of their amazing fans.