Leicester Tigers were denied a first trophy in eight years after Montpellier edged a thrilling European Challenge Cup final at Twickenham by a 18-17 score.
Henry Wells and Jasper Wiese crossed within 13 minutes of each other at the end of the first half and beginning of the second period, but Steve Borthwick’s side could not hold onto their advantage in front of 10,000 spectators.
Eventually the flair of the big-spending Top14 side paid dividends with two wonderful tries via Vicent Rattez and Johan Goosen and eight points from Benoit Paillaugue enough to give Montpellier a second triumph in Europe’s second-tier competition.
It left Tigers frustrated at not joining city neighbours Leicester City in tasting glory in the capital after the Foxes won the FA Cup at Wembley last weekend, but with a place in the Heineken Champions Cup still up for grabs and a strong mixture of youth and experience, the signs are positive for the Mattioli Woods Welford Road side.
Borthwick had repeatedly talked up the quality of Montpellier, who were able to name three World Cup winning South Africans on their bench, but Tigers were backed by 10,000 fans inside HQ.
After Ellis Genge and Nemani Nadolo made their presence felt during the first 60 seconds, Leicester gave the buoyant crowd something more to cheer in the ninth minute.
George Ford – moments after a wonderful grubber-kick – made no mistake from 42 meters to open their account for the evening, but it was a short-lived lead with the French outfit showing the flair you would expect from a side transformed since the January arrival of Philippe Saint-Andre.
An excellent kick by full-back Anthony Bouthier was bettered by impressive footwork from wing Rattez close to the touchline and he managed to beat Matias Moroni to the bouncing ball to tap down for the first try of the night.
It was a wonderful finish and after scrum-half Paillaugue added a penalty to his conversion from two minutes earlier, Montpellier held a 10-3 advantage after 16 minutes.
Tigers’ frustration was compounded by the early exit of Guy Porter following a bang to his head and doing the basics right had been spoken about in the build-up to Leicester’s first European final in 12 years, but at the midway point of the first half it had not been delivered.
Fulgence Ouedraogo’s departure, having captained Montpellier to success in this tournament in 2016, due to injury was countered by Ford squandering a penalty before Cyle Brink became the latest casualty with Tommy Reffell taking the place of the hobbling South African flanker.
Leicester’s cause did receive a boost on the half-hour mark when the patience of referee Andrew Brace ran out and Alexandre Becognee was sin-binned for an accumulation of infringements.
Immediately Tigers wrestled back the initiative and a thundering driving maul got them within touching distance of the try line and eventually Wells made it over in the 33rd minute before Ford’s successful kick restored parity.
It was Paillaugue’s turn to miss a simple penalty with the Montpellier scrum-half dragging an effort wide and the Top14 side began the second period poorly too.
Sloppiness by Jacques Du Plessis was followed by more ill-discipline from captain Guilhem Guirado, who was shown a yellow for pulling down the maul.
Leicester’s forwards were going through the gears now and after Nadolo had been denied a try by a forward pass, the Tigers did grab their second score of the night with 46 minutes on the clock.
Another driving maul proved unstoppable and Wiese went over with a big helping hand from Tom Youngs, who had been joined on the pitch by brother Ben Youngs to a huge round of applause.
Borthwick was unmoved but the roar of the crowd inside Twickenham told the story. Ford had his radar back for the touchline conversion, but Paillaugue’s penalty made it a four-point game going into the final quarter.
With Montpellier back up to full numbers, a fine burst of pace from wing Gabriel Ngandebe got his side deep inside the Leicester half and Johan Goosen finished off a superb team move with Jan Serfontein and Bouthier heavily involved.
Paillaugue kissed both posts with his kick to ensure the French side held a narrow 18-17 lead and the tension was building with Ford slicing a close-range drop goal attempt wide not long after.
It was a time for cool heads but poor hands from Joe Heyes and Wiese’s failure to offload gave Handre Polland the opportunity to extend the lead, but his long-range penalty flew wide and yet it mattered little with Leicester unable to fashion one final chance.