Flying Fijian Vereniki Goneva’s sublime arcing line cut Montpellier to ribbons in the opening minutes to pave the way for the Leicester Tiger’s 41-32 win at Welford Road.
Goneva’s try was launched from a good backline movement after Graham Kitchener stole the Montpellier lineout, Bowden’s pass releasing the Fijian to score inside the first five minutes.
Leicester were made to work for a thrilling win over their French guests Montpellier to go second in Pool 5.
While Leinster’s pummelling of Northampton the night before had been an emphatic display of pure dominance, this match played to the Heineken Cup’s more traditional roots of two talented outfits producing a rollercoaster on the scoresheet.
It threatened at least early on to be a similar show of one-way traffic like at Franklin’s Gardens, when Vereniki Goneva swerved over followed by a brace by Miles Benjamin to hand the Tigers a handy lead of 21 points.
The question was whether Montpellier had the nerve and belief to take something away from Leicester despite the early deficit, which it turned out they had in abundance thanks to a fightback to within six points at half-time and – inspired by Timoci Nagusa – never giving up until the death.
It was always going to require more though than a temporary surge to turn Leicester over at home in this competition, with a try from Jamie Gibson securing the win and bonus point, although Montpellier left Welford Road with one of their own.
Goneva’s sublime arcing line cut Montpellier to ribbons in the opening minutes after Graham Kitchener stole the Montpellier lineout, Bowden’s pass releasing the Fijian to score inside the first five minutes.
Flood’s penalty shortly after slingshotted Leicester into an ominous 10-0 lead.
Montpellier though had more stomach than Perpignan – who had capitulated against Munster after a similar early deficit – and they hit back through a Jonathan Pélissié penalty after the scrum-half scampered away from the base of a scrum.
That was if they could keep the Tigers quiet – not a simple task at Welford Road. Montpellier handed Miles Benjamin an early Christmas present with some soft tackling for the English wing to step his way over for try number two.
Benjamin recently returned from over a year out with a neck injury and while his first try was a touch luxurious, the second from the following restart was an outstanding professional finish in the far corner evading the touchline. Leicester were ahead 24-3 after 15 minutes.
Pélissié added a second penalty and the feel of the game changed when the giant Mamuka Gorgodze strode away down the right touchline to score, Bowden standing little chance of stopping the Montpellier openside as the deficit was shortened.
The Tigers were napping. First a seemingly simple try for Tom Youngs was ruled out due to several handling errors in the build up, before Montpellier hit back.
Rene Ranger has yet to explode in a Montpellier jersey but his brilliant run resulted in Timoci Nagusa’s try to take the score from 24-3 to 24-18 at the break.
The boots of Pélissié, Francois Trinh-Duc and Anthony Floch got to work with the intent of pinning Leicester back in their own half, but it was the running of Yoan Audrin that had the Tigers scampering as the visitors continually made life difficult for Leicester.
Flood’s penalty however settled the nerves by extending the Tigers’ lead to nine points and gave the home side the impetus once more.
Seeking that try bonus point that had been on hold for over 40 minutes, Jamie Gibson latched on to the end of narrow interchange at the base of a five-metre scrum between Thomas Waldrom and Ben Youngs to move Leicester ahead 32-18.
Flood’s third penalty added a blank of safety before Nagusa ripped it off again, pouncing on a loose ball and accelerating into space before sending through Pierre Berard for the visitors’ third try and putting them in range for two losing bonus points to take back to France.
Nagusa nearly made it happen but for a forward pass; the electric Fijian full of running but too far in front of Pélissié’s offload.
Once again Flood was called upon to settle the nerves off the tee and duly did so, giving Montpellier a 13-point mountain that was too high to climb, although the visitors had the last word with a bonus point try of their own thanks to Berard’s second – the losing bonus point snatched away by Ryan Lamb’s late drop goal.
Tries: Goneva, Benjamin 2, Gibson
Cons: Flood 3
Pens: Flood 4
Drop Goal: Lamb
Tries: Gorgodze, Nagusa, Berard 2
Cons: Pélissié 2, Trinh-Duc
Pens: Pélissié 2
Leicester: 15 Scott Hamilton, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Dan Bowden, 11 Miles Benjamin, 10 Toby Flood (c), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Boris Stankovich, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Ed Slater, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 David Mélé 22 Blaine Scully, 23 Ryan Lamb.
Montpellier: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Thomas Combezou , 11 Yoan Audrin, 10 Francois Trinh Duc, 9 Jonathan Pélissié, 8 John Beattie, 7 Mamuka Gorgodze, 6 Kelian Galletier, 5 Mickael De Marco, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Maximiliano Bustos, 2 Charles Geli, 1 Naama Leleimalefaga.
Replacements: 16 Thomas Bianchin, 17 Mikheil Nariashvili, 18 Paea Fa’anunu, 19 Thibaut Privat, 20 Tulou, 21 Benoit Paillaugue, 22 Wynand Olivier, 23 Pierre Berard
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Mark Patton, John Carvill (both Ireland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore