Leicester edged out by Montpellier in thrilling Challenge Cup final

Leicester’s wait for another major title goes on after Johan Goosen’s second-half try for Montpellier inflicted the narrowest of defeats but the Tigers displayed enough defiance in defeat to suggest it may not be too much longer. Leicester gave their more heralded opponents an almighty run for their money with a performance built on forward power that their illustrious predecessors would have been proud of.

They scored classic forwards tries through Harry Wells and Jasper Wiese but ultimately came up short against Philippe Saint-Andre’s side in their first major final for eight years. The frustration will be that they did enough to win the match and a little bit more ice in the veins would surely have seen them home and earned tangible proof of the improvements made in Steve Borthwick’s first full season in charge. It was not always pretty to watch – certainly this side has its limitations – but victory was agonisingly within their grasp. “We have to be very proud of everyone and the way the team attacked that game,” said Borthwick. “We got ourselves in a position to win it, but didn’t – that is a positive that we came so close. We are disappointed, but at the same time proud.”

Twickenham finals used to be a 10 a penny for Tigers fans but after eight barren years, Leicester were determined to back up Leicester City’s FA Cup final win, just six days later. Montpellier began on the front foot but some aggressive defence from Nemani Nadolo, lining up against his former club, shook Leicester into life.

This is a Tigers team that already bears Borthwick’s stamp so it was no surprise that they got an early foothold with their driving maul. Twice in the opening 10 minutes it yielded penalties – the first kicked the corner and the second through the posts by George Ford to put Leicester ahead. As has largely been the case when wearing white here, Ford was never afraid to put boot to ball but his radar was on from the first whistle and Montpellier found themselves pinned in their own half.

A rare foray into their opponents’ half brought the first try for Montpellier, however. Alex Lozowski fizzed a pass to his full-back Anthony Bouthier, who prodded a well-weighted kick in behind. Vincent Rattez kicked the ball towards the try-line and did superbly to get his hand to the ball first through the arms of Leicester’s Matias Moroni. Benoit Paillaugue converted and added a quick penalty for a seven-point lead.

Compounding matters for Leicester, they lost Guy Porter and Cyle Brink to injury midway during the first half, though Montpellier were not unscathed either, with the French veteran Fulgence Ouedraogo also hobbling off. His fellow back-rower Alexandre Becognee followed him on the half hour – paying the price for Montpellier’s collective indiscipline and receiving a yellow card – and Leicester took full advantage. Another almighty shove from the forwards took the Tigers to within a couple of metres and Wells plunged over a pile of bodies to dot down. Ford’s conversion levelled at 10-10 but Tigers were unable to further capitalise on their numerical advantage before half-time.

Just over five minutes into the second half, however, they were ahead again. And once more it came from their forward muscle. Nadolo had a try in the left-hand corner chalked off but the Tigers kept coming. The Montpellier captain Guilhem Guirado was sent to the sin-bin with the French side reeling and after another kick to the corner, Leicester drove a maul over with Jasper Wiese awarded the try.

Ford converted but Paillaugue struck with another penalty soon after in a clear demonstration that Montpellier were not about to roll over and a fine counterattack, sparked by the replacement Gabriel N’Gandebe and eventually finished by Goosen, running a perfect support line for Bouthier’s inside pass, wrestled back the lead. Paillaugue’s conversion struck both posts but did not go through them, leaving Montpellier ahead by just a point. Ford missed with a drop-goal and might have gone for the posts with a long-range penalty rather than the corner but ultimately Leicester were seemingly too wedded to putting boot to the ball and paid the price. “We haven’t been in a final for eight years and we are going forward,” said the Leicester captain Tom Youngs. “Losing by one point is disappointing, but we talked about being able to look ourselves in the mirror at the end of the game, and everyone gave it what they got.”