Tom Varndell issued a timely reminder of his England credentials with a hat-trick as Leicester produced a dominant second-half performance to seal a bonus-point victory over Harlequins.
England head coach Brian Ashton will name his squad for the RBS 6 Nations Championship on Wednesday and although competition for the wing positions is fierce, Varndell did his own selection hopes no harm with three well-taken tries.
Tom Croft, another Tiger with genuine England ambitions, scored twice to cap a dynamic performance from the uncapped and versatile blind-side flanker.
Leicester had been unconvincing in the first 40 minutes but held a 10-6 half-time lead after Varndell latched on to Andy Goode’s chip to score under the posts. But Harlequins had no answer after the break as Leicester raced ahead with 18 points in 13 minutes, including a long-range drop goal from Geordan Murphy.
Croft finished off an excellent team try and later claimed a cross-kick for his second, while Varndell scorched home for a 60-metre solo try and finished off a break from Aaron Mauger.
Only one point separated the two sides before kick-off and they were both forced into late changes. Nick Easter failed a late fitness test and was replaced at number eight for Harlequins by Chris Hala’uifa.
Leicester lost England centre Dan Hipkiss to a groin injury, prompting Ollie Smith to move to outside centre with Varndell promoted on to the right wing.
The Tigers looked like they had been harder hit by the disruption in an error-strewn opening as Goode committed the cardinal sin of allowing an up-and-under to bounce inside his own 22.
Hala’uifa powered forward and looked to slip an offload to Ugo Monye who was skirting the left touchline and could have been away had the ball not slipped from his grasp.
Once Goode finally found his radar and Leicester escaped their own half, the Tigers kept the ball alive well but made little ground. Chris Malone kicked Harlequins into a 6-0 lead, the second penalty earned after a barnstorming 20-metre run from the back of a scrum from Hala’uifa.
New Zealand international Mauger had been virtually redundant at inside centre but made his first significant contribution was telling, with a break deep into the Quins 22. Leicester kept the pressure on and then Goode dinked a perfectly-weighted chip off the outside of his right boot for Varndell to gather and score under the posts.
Harlequins pressed hard for a response. David Strettle was a constant danger with his elusive running style frequently taking him past the first tackle.
But Quins could not capitalise on that go-forward. Mike Brown, Monye and the Strettle carried them deep into Leicester’s 22 but hooker Gary Botha was penalised for offside at the ruck and the last chance of the first half was gone.
And as it turned out, Quins’ last chance to influence the result as Leicester took control immediately from the restart. Malone missed touch in the opening seconds and Murphy launched a huge drop-goal which crept over after brushing the post.
Goode then extended Leicester’s lead to 10 points with a long-range penalty before the Tigers nailed the coffin with two tries in the space of two minutes. Corry regathered another wayward clearance and linked with Johne Murphy and Smith before regaining possession again to send Croft over for the try.
Goode missed the conversion but straight from the restart Varndell skipped clear of his man down the right touchline and accelerated clear for a 60-metre solo try.
Quins’ South African centre De Wet Barry endured a tough afternoon. He had the ball knocked from his grasp as he stretched for the line and was then out-jumped as Croft claimed a cross-kick for his second try.
Varndell sealed his hat-trick with a strong finish after Mauger had beaten two tackles to feed the winger.
Quins kept pushing and eventually Strettle crossed in the closing minutes for a consolation – and perhaps to remind his mate Varndell that competition for England wing places is strong.