It’s not very often that you find a Leicester v Northampton game which is overshadowed by off-field events, but that was the case this time around as the fixture at Welford Road found itself superseded by playoff ramifications, Saints’ selection of players and Manu Tuilagi’s antics after a few shandies on a night out.
Despite the second-string Saints line-up (with top spot already assured) and the shadow of the Manu Tuilagi saga hanging over Welford Road, there was a typical atmosphere for a Midlands derby in Leicester and the ferocity of the opening hits demonstrated that neither set of players were considering anything else apart from attempting to obliterate each other. That was especially apparent in the early stages when Leicester looked to carry on the intensity and ambition of their impressive win over Wasps, pushing the ball wide and finding space – only for Niki Goneva to be clattered by Sam Dickinson, who was harshly penalised for a no-arms tackle. From there, the hosts built field position and forced an offside, allowing Freddie Burns to nudge over the first points of the day. The lead didn’t last long though, as Alex Corbisiero got the better of Dan Cole in the scrum – moments after being on the receiving end – to allow James Wilson a simple penalty shot to level things up. It would turn out to be Cole’s only black mark on what would prove to be a sterling display by the England tighthead.
The Tigers were still in control though and, after Cole had gone close and they forced a lineout close to the Saints line, the hosts executed a shift drive perfectly for Jordan Crane to bundle over into in the corner. Burns missed the conversion, but the Tigers were in control and looking ominous.
Any inkling that this Saints second-string side might be overran, however, was quickly quashed as the visitors began to take a strangle-hold on the game, doing well to pinch Tigers’ ball on several occasions with Mike Haywood a particularly troublesome thorn in the hosts’ side. Although the defence was strong and Northampton never really looked like scoring, they put on enough pressure to earn themselves 2 shots at goal, which Wilson duly slotted to give his side a 1 point lead.
The Tigers did come back into it, with Mat Tait, Christian Loamanu and Ed Slater all making good metres, but the finishing touch all of a sudden wasn’t there, and the crowd was subjected to 5 minutes of collapsed and re-set scrums to finish the half with.
Leicester finally did get some more points on the board after the restart, with a well-struck Burns penalty, before Ben Youngs went close with a dart by the posts, only to be held up by a superb doubt tackle by Corbisiero and Dickinson. They may have repelled that attack, but the next 10 minutes saw Cole and substitute Marcos Ayerza – in particular – place unbearable pressure on the Saints scrum to force them into conceding penalty after penalty. In a farcical turn of events, Jim Mallinder hauled off Salesi Ma’afu when he was on the cusp of being yellow-carded, only for his substitute Gareth Denman to be sent to the sin-bin immediately for committing the same offence. Ma’afu found himself straight back on the field – and then straight back off it, as referee Matt Carley once again produced a yellow card to reduce Saints to 13 – but there was still no penalty try. Despite the fact that I’m sure Corbisiero used to be a tighthead, Carley was informed there was no suitable scrummager available and the game would have to resort to uncontested scrums – much to Leicester’s frustration, who had to settle for another Burns penalty as the only reward for their efforts.
Leicester did immediately take advantage of the underpowered Saints, however, surging back into enemy territory and giving Niall Morris the space to dart around Ahsee Tuala to put the hosts 10 points ahead, and soon extended that further with a Tommy Bell – on for the injured Freddie Burns – penalty to all but seal the game.
The rest of the game was a bit of a non-event as both sides realised that there was not a huge amount to play for, but it was the visitors who had the last hurrah as they began to find gaps in a tired defence, creating a huge overlap for Tom Stephenson to coast over on the left for an unconverted try.
It left the score as a comfortable, but unconvincing, 22 – 14 for Leicester. But how many times have we said that this season? And they do have a habit of digging deeper than others when it really counts.