London Irish 26 Leicester 25
England fly-half Andy Goode endured a goalkicking nightmare as Guinness Premiership leaders Leicester suffered only their third defeat of the league campaign against Madejski Stadium hosts London Irish.
Goode, who is among just a handful of players to have scored more than 1,000 Premiership points, missed five shots at goal from seven attempts, including conversions of tries by wing Johne Murphy, flanker Lewis Moody and number eight Martin Corry.
Goode’s wasteful afternoon cost Leicester the chance of opening up a sizeable gap on second-placed Bristol as Irish displayed great resilience.
The Exiles made a blistering opening through fly-half Shane Geraghty’s smart early score – the 20-year-old finished with 13 points – while wing Topsy Ojo and substitute Steffon Armitage also claimed tries before Barry Everitt replaced Geraghty and sealed the deal by landing a long-range penalty.
But Tigers had the final word with an Alesana Tuilagi try which Goode improved, clinching a losing bonus point and an additional one for scoring four tries.
Leicester boss Pat Howard carried out his promise to make 15 changes from the side that took Tigers top through a 43-15 success against previous leaders Bristol four days ago, with England quartet Goode, Corry, Moody and Harry Ellis among those called up.
Irish though, still without the presence of injured midfield talisman Mike Catt, made a dream start and were ahead inside two minutes.
Slick passing freed full-back Delon Armitage and, although two Leicester defenders tried driving him into touch, he still unleashed a superb inside pass under pressure which resulted in Geraghty galloping over.
He could not convert his try, but Leicester were rattled by the score, and their fragile state of mind was underlined when England fly-half Goode drifted a simple penalty chance wide.
Geraghty showed his opposite number how it should be done by promptly landing a 38-metre penalty before Leicester briefly stirred through Tuilagi’s powerful midfield break that created space for his fellow wing Murphy to sprint clear unopposed.
But it proved only a blip for Irish, as they cruised into a commanding lead by scoring 10 points in three minutes.
Geraghty’s second successful penalty made it 11-5, then Leicester were left floundering in the wake of a brilliant 70-metre Irish attack that included wing Justin Bishop selling Goode an outrageous dummy pass before Ojo delivered a simple finish.
Geraghty added the extras, leaving Leicester – who had not suffered a Boxing Day defeat since the Barbarians beat them them in 1970 – already facing a Herculean task.
Leicester’s reply saw them revert to type, producing a fearsome forward rush after lock James Hamilton won line-out ball, and Corry was the beneficiary as he smashed through an Irish defence powerless to keep Tigers out from such close range.
Goode though, promptly missed his third successive kick at goal, and despite Tigers dominating territory for the remainder of an entertaining half, Irish held a comfortable interval advantage.
Howard made a half-time substitution, sending on fly-half Paul Burke as Goode switched to inside centre instead of Sam Vesty, who was an earlier replacement for knee injury victim Tom Youngs.
Goode had failed to capitalise on Leicester’s 73% first-half possession, so Burke took the tactical reins before Goode finally found his range through a 20-metre penalty which reduced Tigers’ deficit.
Irish found themselves under relentless pressure, with the outstanding Moody tearing into them time and time again through his searing combination of pace and power, although Leicester suffered a 52nd-minute injury blow when England lock Ben Kay departed to be replaced by Leo Cullen.
Leicester huffed an puffed in pursuit of an equalising score, but it was Irish who kept their composure following some well-timed substitutions by Exiles rugby director Brian Smith, when replacement flanker Armitage crossed wide out after collecting Olivier Magne’s scoring pass.
But an immediate Leicester riposte saw Hamilton denied a try by the video referee, then Moody crashed over before Irish could reorganise themselves defensively, narrowing the gap to five points before Goode missed his third successive conversion.
A sweet Everitt strike took Irish eight points clear, and that signalled the end for Leicester, despite their trip to Reading finishing with a last-gasp Tuilagi try, converted by Goode, which clinched a bonus point double.