Leicester put Borthwick talk to one side as they edge out the Ospreys
Leicester put speculation linking head coach Steve Borthwick with England’s top job to one side as they opened their Heineken Champions Cup campaign by beating the Ospreys 23-17 in Swansea.
Borthwick is the hot favourite to succeed Eddie Jones, who was sacked five days ago following a poor autumn campaign after seven years in charge.
The Leicester boss has totally distanced himself from questions on England, insisting his focus was firmly on Tigers’ tricky first European assignment.
And despite Borthwick resting a host of top names such as England pair Freddie Steward and Ben Youngs, Argentina hooker Julian Montoya and South Africa number eight Jasper Wiese, Tigers prevailed.
Leicester trailed 10-6 at the break, but second-half tries from wing Harry Potter and full-back Anthony Watson put them in charge, while fly-half Charlie Atkinson converted both scores and kicked three penalties.
Ospreys claimed touchdowns from prop Nicky Smith and number eight Morgan Morris, plus two Jack Walsh conversions and a penalty, but it was their 12th successive Champions Cup defeat and they have not defeated English opposition in Europe for five years.
They visit French champions Montpellier next weekend, with Leicester hosting Clermont Auvergne after gaining a potentially-priceless European away win despite never remotely hitting top gear.
Ospreys welcomed back seven players who started Wales’ Autumn Nations Series defeat against Australia two weeks ago, including centre George North, lock Alun Wyn Jones and skipper Justin Tipuric, but fly-half Gareth Anscombe missed out because of a shoulder injury.
A number of Leicester switches, meanwhile, included a start for back-row forward Olly Cracknell against his former team, wing Harry Simmons and prop Joe Heyes.
Walsh and Atkinson exchanged penalties during the first 15 minutes, but attacking opportunities were few and far between as both sides looked to establish territorial control.
A second Atkinson penalty nudged Leicester ahead, and it remained an attritional encounter, although Watson made a couple of half-breaks that tested Ospreys’ defence.
The Ospreys, though, began to enjoy scrum dominance, and French referee Ludovic Cayre ran out of patience with Leicester’s front-row just before the interval.
The home side looked to hammer home their set-piece advantage, and they struck just after Tigers tighthead Heyes was yellow-carded.
Sustained pressure near the Leicester line finally told as Smith crashed over from close range before Heyes had barely left the pitch.
Walsh converted for a 10-6 half-time lead, but there was an Ospreys concern as North went off to receive treatment following a hefty midfield collision.
North did not reappear for the second period, being replaced by Michael Collins, while Will Hurd took over from Heyes on a permanent basis when the sin-binning time elapsed.
And Leicester regained the lead through a 51st-minute touchdown, created by Atkinson’s cross-kick as Potter beat opposite number Keelan Giles in a scramble for possession to touch down, before Atkinson landed a wide-angled conversion.
Tigers scored again seven minutes later, and this time it was Watson who broke clear from just inside Ospreys’ half, showcasing blistering pace to claim a fine solo try that Atkinson converted.
The Ospreys refused to go quietly, though, and Morris’ try seven minutes from time – converted by Walsh – set up a tense finale.
But Atkinson calmed any Leicester nerves by completing a penalty hat-trick, and Ospreys were then kept at a safe distance.
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