There have been enough false dawns at Leicester in the last few years to urge a note of caution but the Welford Road faithful can be forgiven for getting carried away after a barnstorming victory over Exeter to begin the season. The Chiefs, last season’s runners-up and one of the dominant forces in England and Europe over the last few years, were sent packing with their tails between their legs. The Tigers scored five tries, ran roughshod over a team who have given them a few thrashings of late and have a burgeoning young star in the excellent full-back Freddie Steward.
Buoyed by a bumper crowd – Rob Baxter had spoken beforehand about how wary he was of the impact a packed Welford Road might have – and with Steve Borthwick continuing to bring about improvements at the Tigers they were on the money from the start. First-half tries from Steward, Harry Potter and Matt Scott were followed by two for Nic Dolly in the second – the Chiefs left with much to ponder on their trip back to the south-west. One match is not enough of a sample size but they were surprisingly wasteful from close range too – perhaps the new law trials are going to take some getting used to. “We put the foundations in place last year and we tried to build upon the foundations,” said Borthwick, Leicester’s director of rugby. “We are very clear about what kind of team we are.”
Steward, who will have been watched closely by England’s new attack coach Martin Gleeson, began his fine afternoon’s work by fielding a high ball with authority but was taken out in the air as he did so and George Ford was on target with the resulting penalty. Leicester’s lead was extended to eight following strong carries from Nemani Nadolo and Ellis Genge created the space for Ford to find Steward to plunge over. The 20-year-old impressed when winning his two caps last summer and he will surely continue his international development shortly, with Eddie Jones due to name a training squad on Tuesday.
Ford missed the conversion but every other facet of his game was on point. It was he pulling the strings, and while the Chiefs registered their first try of the season through Don Armand from a close range lineout – a quickly taken throw catching the Tigers out – Leicester had two further tries by half-time to show for their dominance. “George controlled that game for large parts of it. It was great to see him back fit and performing as well as that,” said Borthwick. “He controlled that game brilliantly.”
The first was a simple score – Nadolo, who was eager to involve himself at every opportunity, blasted up the middle and while he was stopped before the line, Ben Youngs fizzed a pass wide to the left to Potter to go over. Ford again missed the conversion but after Leicester weathered a lengthy period of Exeter pressure on their own line, Steward conjured another try for Scott. The rangy full-back darted down the right and his chipped kick evaded the covering Josh Hodge. Steward could not quite reach the try-line but Scott was on hand. This time Ford did convert for a 20-5 lead.
The Chiefs continued to batter away in the third quarter but time after time the Tigers kept them at bay. Nadolo produced a fine last-ditch tackle on Slade – who did not have the best of afternoons – but increasingly the referee Ian Tempest found fault with the Tigers and continued to award Exeter further penalties. Eventually he lost patience and awarded the penalty try with the Leicester lock Harry Wells sent to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul.
The Chiefs have recent history for completing comebacks from that kind of position but Leicester gave them a taste of their own medicine with a driven lineout try, finished by Dolly, to reassert their control on the scoreboard and secure the bonus point. Exeter failed to score a point before Wells returned and, restored to XV, Leicester struck with another close-range try from Dolly. It is not a position Exeter find themselves in very often and while Sam Hidalgo-Clyne scored a late consolation try you cannot help but wonder if last season’s final defeat by Harlequins is not yet out of the system.
“The tale of the game was that we had enough five-metre pressure and opportunity to score more points than we did,” said Baxter. “You probably saw Leicester score a couple of tries that were uncharacteristic for us to concede and with the combination of the two we ended up with the scoreboard looking like it did.”