Leicester Tigers fended off a fine fightback from the Ospreys to record a tense 12-6 victory in the Heineken Cup at Welford Road on Saturday.
Leicester Tigers fended off a fine fightback from the Ospreys to record a tense 12-6 victory in their Heineken Cup opener at Welford Road on Saturday.
The Ospreys have oft spoken of their ambition to be among the giants of European rugby. If they are really serious about fulfilling their stated destiny they could do worse than study the start that their hosts made to today's battle of wits.
Leicester, the twice-crowned kings of Europe, understand that the rarified heights of Heineken Cup rugby require all dials to be notched up to the maximum, and they duly stunned the Ospreys into submission with 35 minutes of fluent intensity that featured more devastating runs then your average day in the Square Mile.
A well-known rugby scribe opined in one of Sunday's broadsheets that the Tigers have lost the “flow” that made them such an unstoppable force in the early part of the decade, so how apt that it was Toby Flood who supplied the liquidity into what was a stunning return to form.
But full credit to the Ospreys. They did their level best to resist the green tide, restricting their hosts to just four penalty goals in the first half and even responded with an impromptu swing of Shane Williams's boot.
The visitors even managed to half the deficit early in the second half and threatened to turn the tables after Flood was forced off the field with what looked like a minor hamstring strain.
A fine break from Tommy Bowe had the Ospreys camped on Leicester's line at the death, but some trademark steel from the locals got them home.
So, with a potentially try-laden trip ahead of them to Pool Three whipping boys Treviso next Saturday, Leicester are up and running in pursuit of a third Heineken Cup triumph that would match French giants Toulouse.
The Ospreys, meanwhile, must beat Liberty Stadium visitors Perpignan in six days' time, or risk a possible pool stage exit.
They will be relieved to have collected a losing bonus-point, which could ultimately prove crucial in the quarter-final shake-up, but it was not a performance to frighten established European forces such as Toulouse, Munster or Wasps.
England wing Tom Varndell failed to make a Leicester starting line-up captained from the second row by Martin Corry, while summer signings Flood and Ben Woods both made their Tigers European debuts.
All the pre-match attention had been on Ospreys though, following their decision to ban Gavin Henson for two games for failing to pitch up for training.
Henson, who will also miss the appointment with Perpignan, was replaced by Andrew Bishop, while former Ulster wing Tommy Bowe lined up alongside him in midfield.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, who announces his squad for the November Tests on Tuesday week, was among a capacity crowd of 17,498, but the Ospreys gave him little to cheer.
The Leicester forwards showed an immediate appetite for battle, led by their uncompromising tighthead prop Julian White and the hugely dynamic Jordan Crane.
The local forwards set the tone, playing the game in Ospreys' collective face, and they could not cope.
The Tigers were hungrier and quicker at the critical breakdown area, and it took Ospreys 14 minutes to break into Leicester's 22, by which time they were 3-0 behind.
Flood completed his penalty hat-trick early in the second quarter, landing one kick from a metre inside Leicester's half, but Tigers also blew three clear try-scoring chances.
Wing Johne Murphy sliced open the Ospreys defence, only for his pass to fly over full-back Geordan Murphy's head, then they repeated their double act before the ball drifted into touch.
Flanker Tom Croft galloped over the Ospreys line as half-time approached, only for referee Alain Rolland to call play back for a line-out after the impressive Matt Smith put his foot in touch during the build-up.
Flood's fourth successful penalty put Leicester 12 points clear, and it took the Ospreys 39 minutes to open their account through a Williams drop-goal.
The wing's left-footed strike went over via the post, and Rolland required confirmation from the video official before awarding it.
The Ospreys were relieved to troop off only nine points adrift, such had been Leicester's dominance, and a Hook penalty after 58 minutes further cut the deficit.
Hook, now operating at inside centre after the Ospreys sent on their Wales Under-20 fly-half Daniel Biggar, had earlier seen a long-range strike drift narrowly wide as Leicester came under sustained pressure for the first time.
A raft of Ospreys substitutions, notably the arrivals of flanker Filo Tiatia and prop Duncan Jones, generated much-needed momentum, while Leicester lost a limping Flood, who was replaced by South African Derick Hougaard.
The Ospreys went for broke as the clock ticked down, Bowe only narrowly being denied a breakaway try by Geordan Murphy's superb defensive work, but the Welsh side still secured an attacking scrum.
Leicester did not panic though, tackling feverishly before Hougaard took the pressure off with a decisive 50-metre clearance kick.
For Leicester Tigers:
Pens: Flood 4
Leicester Tigers: 15 Geordan Murphy, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Dan Hipkiss, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Matt Smith, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Ben Woods, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Corry (c), 3 Julian White, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 George Chuter, 17 Dan Cole, 18 Richard Blaze, 19 Marco Wentzel, 20 Julien Dupuy, 21 Derick Hougaard, 22 Alesana Tuilagi.
Ospreys: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Nikki Walker, 13 Tommy Bowe, 12 Andrew Bishop, 11 Shane Williams, 10 James Hook, 9 Rhodri Wells, 8 Ryan Jones (c), 7 Marty Holah, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Ian Gough, 19 Filo Tiatia, 20 Tom Smith, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Daniel Biggar.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Touch judges: David Wilkinson (Ireland), S Flannery (Ireland)
Television match official: Brian Fitzgerald (Ireland)