Leicester 25 Ulster 18
Leicester put indifferent domestic form behind them as they made a strong start to their European Rugby Champions Cup campaign by sinking Ulster 25-18 at Welford Road.
Tigers made an early statement in Pool Three – a group that also includes reigning European champions Toulon.
First-half tries by centre Owen Williams, lock Graham Kitchener and fly-half Freddie Burns put Ulster firmly on the back foot, as not even England centre Manu Tuilagi’s 15th-minute departure after he appeared to suffer a head knock could disrupt Leicester.
Ulster, despite Ireland wing Tommy Bowe’s scorching second-half try and a later Franco van der Merwe touchdown, plus eight points from the boot of fly-half Paddy Jackson, could never quite get close enough as two Williams penalties and a conversion and one Burns conversion, meant Leicester prevailed.
And it was just what Tigers needed, continuing the recovery process eight days after beating Harlequins following successive Aviva Premiership defeats against Bath, London Irish and Gloucester, and setting them up nicely for next weekend’s trip to Llanelli, where the Scarlets await.
Leicester, beaten twice by Ulster in Europe last season, showed one change from the side that defeated Quins as Argentina Test prop Marcos Ayerza made his first start since completing Rugby Championship commitments.
Ulster, meanwhile, were without injured Ireland international wing Andrew Trimble, so Craig Gilroy deputised, with Lewis Stevenson replacing suspended lock Alan O’Connor and Jackson taking over from Ian Humphreys.
Although Jackson drifted an early penalty chance wide, Ulster made a confident start, moving through numerous phases as they utilised the battering ram of instincts of number eight Nick Williams before Jackson found his range after eight minutes to secure a 3-0 lead.
Leicester saw Tuilagi leave the action just seven minutes later, but they responded by launching a concerted attack that resulted in Williams just getting underneath last-ditch tackling to claim a try that required confirmation from television match official Bernard Dal Maso.
Burns kicked the conversion to put Leicester 7-3 ahead, while Tuilagi going off meant Miles Benjamin replacing him and Vereniki Goneva moving from wing into midfield.
It did not unsettle Leicester, though, and they added a second try 11 minutes before half-time after Ulster number nine Paul Marshall tried to break from inside his own 22 but succeeded only in seeing his pass intercepted by livewire Tigers skipper Ben Youngs.
The supporting Kitchener collected Youngs’ pass to score, and Ulster were then back behind the eight-ball after Gilroy was sin-binned by referee Romain Poite for a dangerous challenge on Benjamin before Leicester punished them ruthlessly.
Youngs was again the catalyst by wrong-footing an undermanned Ulster defence, and it was Burns who weaved his way over for a try that Williams converted to open up a 19-3 advantage.
Leicester were hungry for a fourth touchdown before the break, though, with Ulster in disarray, but despite hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini appearing to have scored, it was ruled out because Youngs had a foot on the touchline during build-up play.
The interval could not come quickly enough for Ulster, and although they managed to prevent any further defensive breaches before the break, a 44th-minute Williams penalty resumed normal service and took Tigers 19 points clear that was quickly matched by Jackson’s second successful strike.
But Ulster looked much sharper in the second period, which was underlined when they attacked from quality lineout ball and their backs put together an exhilarating passage of play that ended with Bowe sprinting over. Jackson’s conversion cut the gap to 22-13, only for Williams to boot another penalty.
It meant that Tigers entered the final quarter knowing the game was not won, and Ulster did not require a second invitation to pile the pressure on as Van der Merwe claimed their second try 13 minuites from time, but Jackson’s conversion attempt was successfully charged down by Leicester flanker Jamie Gibson.
Ulster, seven points adrift, went in search of far more than just a losing bonus point, and Leicester were content to preserve their advantage by closing down the visitors in midfield, denying dangerous runners like Bowe and Gilroy any further opportunities.
And they successfully sealed the deal to claim four important points at the start of another demanding European campaign.