Leicester 34 Gwent Dragons 3
Double European champions Leicester recorded a comfortable victory against Gwent Dragons as they got their Heineken Cup campaign up and running at Welford Road.
The Tigers, Heineken Cup winners in 2001 and 2002, were not seriously threatened in front of a 15,000 home crowd.
Tries from wings Ollie Smith (2) and Neil Baxter, plus a Leon Lloyd interception score, put distance between the teams, while Italian fly-half Ramiro Pez converted all four touchdowns and booted two penalties for a 14-point haul.
Leicester fielded seven England internationals in their pack, including World Cup captain Martin Johnson prior to tonight’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme in London.
But while Johnson and company were on top for long periods, and the Dragons only managed one Percy Montgomery penalty, the visitors defended admirably.
Given the amount of ball Leicester had, they should have enjoyed an even more emphatic winning margin.
But Smith’s second touchdown – and Leicester’s fourth – five minutes from time, at least secured a winning bonus point.
With just one point currently separating all four teams in Pool One, then it could ultimately prove vital when the quarter-final line-up takes shape next month.
Leicester suffered a blow before the game when their England flanker Lewis Moody withdrew because of a foot injury, so Martin Corry switched to blindside flanker and Adam Balding started at number eight.
The Tigers, desperate for victory following their defeat against Stade Francais in Paris last weekend, made a dream start, and were ahead inside four minutes.
Pez’s wayward kick drifted infield, but Dragons wing Ben Breeze dropped the ball and former Salford Reds rugby league player Baxter followed up to score.
Pez converted, and then slotted two penalties as Leicester built up a 13-0 advantage inside the opening quarter, dominating territory and possession.
The Dragons’ cause was not helped when French referee Joel Dume sin-binned centre Hal Luscombe for a technical offence, and a damage-limitation exercise loomed as Tigers took complete control.
Leicester were guilty of over-complicating several midfield handling moves, but debutant Jaco van der Westhuyzen was a threat each time he handled the ball.
South Africa’s World Cup full-back ran menacingly from deep, and with a little more luck, he could have breached the Dragons’ defence.
The visitors put together their best spell of attacking rugby just before half-time, but it all ended in despairing fashion.
The Dragons had a one-man overlap, yet full-back Sione Tuipulotu’s intended pass to hooker Paul Young, found Tigers centre Lloyd instead, and he sprinted 90 metres for a sucker-punch try, again converted by Pez.
Leicester lost hooker Dorian West through injury as the interval approached, but it could not disrupt their flow, and the Dragons faced a mammoth second-half task, trailing 20-0.
Any hope the Dragons had of staging a meaningful fightback, disappeared within five minutes of the restart.
Pez ghosted into space near the Dragons’ line, and although he was hauled down, the visitors could do nothing to stop Smith on his arcing run to the line. Pez converted, and it was game, set and match.
Montgomery slotted a 48-metre penalty two minutes later – a surprising tactical choice, given that he went for touch twice from closer range before the break – yet it remained a finger-in-the-dam exercise.
Smith went close to a second try on 58 minutes, but the Dragons proved determined defenders and kept Leicester out as Tigers chased a bonus point.
Smith’s class told on 75 minutes, when he weaved his way through from 25 metres, and Pez’s successful conversion completed the scoring.