Leicester Tigers were given a real work out ahead of the play-offs as they wrapped up the regular Aviva Premiership season with a bonus-point victory over table-toppers Saracens.
Sarries came to Welford Road knowing that they were already guaranteed a first-place finish in the standings and director of rugby Mark McCall had rung the changes as a result with an almost entirely new first XV.
Richard Cockerill shuffled his pack as well, particularly in the forwards, and his side tuned up for a semi-final trip to Franklin’s Gardens next Friday with a heard-earned victory against a Sarries side that were always going to be up against it when Justin Melck was red carded just after the interval.
Ben Spencer’s try had put the visitors in front at Welford Road with an early score but moments before half-time the Tigers pack rumbled towards the try-line and earned a penalty score.
After the break Melck was given his marching orders as Manu Tuilagi, Blaine Scully and Graham Kitchener all went over for the home side.
But Sarries did not buckle and had a penalty try and a Jack Wilson score of their own to keep it close before Spencer bagged a second in the final minutes to make it a nervy finish.
The game started slowly after Boris Stankovich went off with an injury in the first minute but not long after play was resumed Saracens opened the scoring after scrum-half Spencer dummied through the Tigers line to dot down, Hodgson missing with the conversion.
Despite the visitors piling the early pressure on, it didn’t take long for Tigers to make their mark on the game when Owen Williams converted a fifth-minute penalty to take the score to 3-5, although Hodgson’s penalty only minutes later increased Saracens’ lead to 3-8 in what was a hectic opening ten minutes.
Both teams found themselves locked in a fierce battle in the middle of the field as Tigers proved to be a constant threat going forward, although time and again they found themselves unable to break down what was an incredibly resilient Saracens defence.
The score remained static at 3-8 up until the final minute of the first half when Tigers drove a hard fought scrum over the line for to earn a penalty try, giving them a narrow 10-8 lead going into the break after Toby Flood comfortably converted.
The second half proved to be a far cry from the first as the strong defensive show put on by Saracens seemed to have disappeared as Leicester hit them hard, scoring two tries scored in the opening eight minutes.
Saracen’s winger Michael Tagicakibau found himself sin binned for a tackle on Marcos Ayerza which Tiger’s did well to capitalize on as Tuilagi scored a try to extend the hosts lead, shortly after flanker Melck saw red to pile the woes on Saracens who found themselves 17-8 down.
Three minutes later Leicester’s lead was further extended after Tuilagi showed sheer strength to smash through Saracens ranks, linking up beautifully with Niall Morris and Scully who then crossed the line, Flood converting the try to make it 24-8 only a mere eight minutes into a second half already filled with drama.
Saracens hit back well once Tagicakibau found his way back onto the pitch, as they responded with a penalty try that was driven well over the line.
Almost immediately after, Tigers scored their fourth to earn a bonus-point when Dan Bowden did well to find a gap in the Saracens defence to allow Kitchener to score the try from close range, Flood’s conversion gave Tigers a 31-15 lead.
Saracens hit back late on to keep Tigers – for whom Tom Croft made a late cameo return from injury – on their toes when Wilson and Spencer both scored tries in the latter stages but the hosts held on.