A magnificent first-half performance saw Guinness Premiership leaders Leicester mark Lote Tuqiri’s final appearance with a comfortable bonus-point victory over London Irish at Welford Road.
The Australia international returns to his homeland to play for Wests Tigers in the NRL after a typically powerful display, but Irish will rue the four penalty kicks at goal that they missed, which could have hauled them back into contention.
Leicester dominated all facets of the game in the opening half and tries from Alesana Tuilagi, Scott Hamilton and the outstanding Martin Castrogiovanni, plus 10 points from the boot of Toby Flood, put them 25-10 up. Steffon Armitage crossed for Irish with Tom Homer kicking five points.
Ryan Lamb added three penalties after the break for the visitors while replacement Jeremy Staunton kicked one of his own for the hosts, before George Chuter went over for the Tigers’ fourth try.
Geordan Murphy, Flood and Castrogiovanni all returned from international duty to start for the table-topping Tigers, while Tuqiri started at centre for his final appearance. Calum Green replaced the injured Ben Kay at lock while Tom Croft was back from injury on the bench. England scrum-half Paul Hodgson partnered Lamb at half-back for the Exiles, with wing John Rudd and hooker James Buckland also starting.
The Tigers started well as they worked a fine narrow side move to put wing Tuilagi in after five minutes. Prop Castrogiovanni’s lovely take-and-give freed Anthony Allen and the centre had the easiest of tasks to put Tuilagi round near the posts, Flood adding the simple conversion.
Flood extended the lead to 10-0 with a ninth-minute penalty, after a magnificent 70-metre clearance by Murphy had given the Tigers great field position, to cap a superb start from the home side.
Full-back Homer then provided some welcome respite for Irish as he got them on the board after Leicester were penalised for not being bound onto an attacking maul. But Leicester remained in complete control with another great pass from Castrogiovanni, the Italy forward this time passing through his legs, helping Tuilagi find space. The giant wing was tackled this time but the constant pressure saw the visitors concede another penalty, with Flood bisecting the posts with his second three-pointer after 20 minutes.
And things got worse for Irish from the restart. A rumbling maul from the Tigers sucked in the visiting pack and when the ball was moved wide, Tuqiri burst through some weak tackling to feed Scott Hamilton. The Kiwi still had plenty to do but a swerve took him round the covering defence to score in the corner, the only blemish was Flood’s failure to land a tough conversion.
The game was effectively over as a contest moments later as Castrogiovanni intercepted an inside ball from Seilala Mapusua and scored under the sticks. Flood added the conversion to give the hosts a 25-3 lead. Homer failed with two penalty chances and Flood with one before Irish gave themselves hope when Armitage finished off a smart lineout move by getting over the line, Homer converting for a 25-10 deficit.
England Under-20 cap Homer then missed with another penalty upon the resumption before Flood handed England boss Martin Johnson a potential injury worry as he was led off by the Leicester physio, although the fly-half appeared to have no trouble jogging from the pitch as Jeremy Staunton replaced him.
Irish, buoyed by Armitage’s try, started the second half confidently with Mapasua and Homer forcing a penalty. Fly-half Lamb took over the kicking duties to trim the lead to 12 points. But that good work was quickly undone as number eight Chris Hala’ufia was sin-binned for not using his arms in a tackle on Castrogiovanni in the 52nd minute and stand-off Lamb missed another kickable penalty.
The Tigers responded with some telling bursts from Jordan Crane and Tuilagi, and were rewarded with a penalty that Staunton slotted before Lamb replied in kind. Leicester brought Croft off the bench for the final 15 minutes as the game drew to a close and Lamb slotted his third penalty as Irish strove to try to pick up a losing bonus point. But those hopes were dashed as Allen rolled through a tackle to offload for replacement hooker Chuter to barrel over with Murphy adding the extras.