Leicester’s Heineken Cup ambitions suffered a setback after 14-man Perpignan snatched a dramatic 22-22 draw in the last minute at Welford Road.
The Tigers had led 13-6 with a try from Alesana Tuilagi late in the first half but they failed to kill off Perpignan – Billy Twelvetrees missed four penalties – and paid the price. Perpignan hit back with a try from scrum-half David Mele and sealed the draw with a late penalty from fly-half Nicolas Laharrague, despite having lock Rimas Alvarez Kairelis in the sin-bin.
Leicester are not out of the quarter-final hunt but given they still have to travel to pool leaders Scarlets, this draw probably favours Perpignan. It was certainly the visitors who were celebrating at the final whistle. Leicester had been bent on revenge after returning from Perpignan with a losing bonus point but bruised pride following last week's 24-19 defeat.
Tight-head prop Martin Castrogiovanni's inclusion was the only planned change from that defeat, in a bid to correct Leicester's scrummaging, but the Tigers were forced into a late switch at fly-half. Twelvetrees started in place of England international Toby Flood, who has suffered an adductor injury.
Leicester shoved Perpignan backwards at the first scrum and earned a free-kick from a second, which Ben Youngs turned into a penalty with a quick tap which caught the French defence offside. Youngs opted to go quickly again but Leicester's early pressure was released by a knock-on and Perpignan moved downfield, with Henry Tuilagi twice making ground with powerful runs against his old team.
Laharrague missed with his first drop-goal effort but landed the second to edge Perpignan into the lead, only for Twelvetrees to draw Leicester level with a penalty from inside his own half. The two fly-halves each missed a shot at goal before exchanging penalties, with Leicester earning theirs after a scything run from Twelvetrees followed by some intense pressure at the breakdown.
Leicester began to get some tempo into their game. Youngs cut through the Perpignan defence and popped his pass off the ground for Geordan Murphy. The Tigers full-back was eventually hauled to the ground but Leicester's breakdown work earned them another close-range penalty.
This time Alesana Tuilagi took the tap penalty and there was no stopping the giant Samoan wing, who charged through two defenders to score from five metres out.
Leicester could not defend their advantage and conceded a penalty on the stroke of half-time with a late hit from Steve Mafi on David Marty. The Tigers thought they had a scrum for a forward in the Perpignan 22 but referee Peter Fitzgibbon pulled play all the way back and Laharrague slotted the kick.
Perpignan then took the lead immediately after the interval with a try from Mele, who stole down the blindside after as strong scrum from the visitors. Mele finished the try brilliantly, grounding the ball one-handed in the corner just before Scott Hamilton's cover tackle bundled him into touch.
The Tigers hit back with two penalties in quick succession from Twelvetrees, both awarded for Perpignan defenders not rolling away. Laharrague drew the scores level once again but Leicester resumed their supremacy in the scrum. Another destructive shove from the Leicester eight inside the Perpignan 22 earned the Tigers the penalty and Twelvetrees nudged the Tigers back into the lead.
But the Tigers shot themselves in the foot. Twelvetrees missed two more penalty shots at goal and Laharrague punished them with his late penalty strike. Even then Leicester had one last chance to win the game after securing a turnover from the restart but they butchered the opportunity as Murphy's pass drifted into touch.