Tuilagi completed a full 80 minutes in the eighth comeback of an injury-blighted career, yet beyond that plus point there was nothing but misery for the Tigers after bombing out of contention in Pool Four.
It was only their third home defeat in a decade in Europe and there was plenty of grumbling from the 23,100 crowd at the officiating of Mathieu Raynal, who penalised Leicester on twice as many occasions as Munster.
Tigers head coach Matt O’Connor also described the penalty count as “a bit unique” for Welford Road, but his side only had themselves to blame.
Manning up to Munster after being bullied in defeat at Thomond Park last week was clearly a priority, but the manic indiscipline it induced cost Leicester dear.
The visitors, cool and calm in contrast, made them pay through Ian Keatley, who kicked 20 points in a win which puts them top of the group with two rounds to play in January.
Leicester, bottom of the pool behind Munster as well as French sides Racing 92 and Castres, are not mathematically gone but the cold reality is that they will fail to reach the Champions Cup knockout stages for the second successive season.
After the summer splurge on George Ford and Jonny May, such a shortfall hardly represents value for money.
“The guys are really disappointed,” said O’Connor.
“We thought we could realistically get out of this group but we were second best to Munster over the two legs and as a result it’s near impossible for us to go through.”
Dan Cole was a one-man penalty machine, coughing up five in the first half before referee Raynal tired of his antics and sent the England prop to the sin-bin.
Leicester conceded 10 points while they were shorthanded with Keatley knocking over his fourth penalty and then converting after CJ Stander had burrowed his way over for a try. It followed a lost line-out which had allowed Conor Murray to carve open the Tigers’ defence.
Leicester had their chance to exploit an extra man when Munster replacement John Ryan was despatched for some cynical interference at a ruck on the hour but they could only manage a solitary penalty from Ford. It was his fourth successful kick out of four and pulled the Tigers to within three points as the game went into the last 10 minutes.
But Keatley punished Dom Barrow for another Leicester transgression with his fifth penalty and then, after Tuilagi had almost broken free from his own 22, Stander squeezed out another breakdown penalty which Keatley drilled over to seal the win.
Leicester had scored the game’s first try in the 13th minute from an arcing outside break by 31-year-old full-back Mathew Tait, which rewound the clock to his days as a teenage superstar centre.
But other than that they struggled to piece together enough coherent attacks to break down Munster’s defence in which man-of-the-match Peter O’Mahony was his usual outstanding self.
“It was a massive result for us,” said blindside flanker and captain O’Mahony.
Tuilagi, playing only his 21st game in three-and-a-half injury-blighted years, had few opportunities. He knocked on one chip from Ford in the greasy conditions and was hauled down by Keatley just short in the closing stages, but other than that had a quiet evening.
Quiet, in the context of his turbulent career which suffered its latest interruption with a knee injury in the opening game of the season, was probably good. Not much else was for Leicester last night.
Still, they can always concentrate on the league now. Next up for them are Saracens on Christmas Eve.