Manu Tuilagi marked his return to Leicester Tigers’ starting XV at Welford Road with a try in their 45-15 bonus-point victory over Exeter Chiefs on Sunday.
England and British & Irish Lion star Tuilagi, who has been out with a pectoral injury since September, looked back to his best at Welford Road against Exeter – who last weekend won their first major piece of silverware in the LV= Cup final against Northampton Saints.
The rampaging centre scored Leicester’s first of six tries in total and his return – along with that of midfield partner Anthony Allen – couldn’t be better timed with the race for play-off spots heating up.
It was Exeter’s Henry Slade who bagged the game’s first points from the kicking tee on six minutes, but Tuilagi quickly took charge.
His burst past Jack Nowell set up the move that eventually saw the centre cross on the left wing for his 14th try in 48 Aviva Premiership matches.
Owen Williams was adjudged to have missed a tight conversion, but the Tigers were not about to rest on their laurels and Logovi’i Mulipola was the next to add his name to the scoresheet.
Ben Youngs set Niki Goneva free and the winger played in the charging prop who bounced through the tackles from 20 metres to cross on 12 minutes.
Williams, who was starting as Tigers’ fly-half in place of Toby Flood, added the extras before seeing a 17th-minute penalty bounce back off the post.
But his next effort went over to make it 15-3, capping 20 minutes of total dominance from the hosts.
The Chiefs charged back briefly, a well-worked lineout and drive saw Jack Yeandle burrow his way over on 26 minutes and Slade convert.
But Leicester’s response was immediate. Jordan Crane and Julian Salvi played quick ball which allowed Goneva to dart his way past two Chiefs defenders. Williams’ conversion, and subsequent penalty, made it 25-10 at half-time.
The bonus point was secured on 52 minutes after another fine piece of play from Tuilagi, who created the line for Adam Thompstone to cross.
Full-back Scott Hamilton was also involved in the move which saw the wing go over and, added to Williams’ earlier penalty, the Tigers were home and dry at 33-10.
Leicester went in search of a fifth try and it finally arrived 12 minutes from time through David Mele.
The replacement scrum-half picked up the loose ball from another dominant Tigers scrum and crossed from close range.
Flood added two points, but Exeter served a reminder of their threat when Ian Whitten burst down the left to reduce their arrears on 72 minutes.
However, Mele and Leicester had the last laugh to make it 45-15 at full-time – the Tigers’ biggest score for a year.