A try from Anthony Allen and 17 points from the boot of Owen Williams secured Leicester the victory over Northampton in the 230th meeting between the sides. The win made Tigers undefeated in 10 games against their southerly neighbours, tying the record set between 1983 and 1990.
Northampton has a mental block about playing Leicester. In the whole of 2013 they only failed to win 5 domestic games and 3 of them were Leicester. They haven’t beaten us since September 2010 and even with a 2 man advantage at the end let it slip through their grasp. Northampton’s kickers missed 10 points whilst Owen Williams was a perfect 6/6.
The first half was when Tigers gouged their advantage. Dominating not so much possession as territory it meant that when the Saints erred it was within Williams’ scope to eek the lead out further. The second half was scrappy with Saints unable to harness their passion and drive.
Tigers were fast out of the blocks. The first half hour was a pitched battle of bloody intensity as Tigers’ forward carriers battered at the Northampton gates. Hooley opened the scoring after Goneva failed to roll away.
Tigers were hammering away at the Northampton line. The temperature was rising. Tom Wood’s deliberate knock on was deemed only accidental by referee Wayne Barnes and Tigers had a 5m scrum.
And what a scrum. The packs were fired up, straining at the leash like murderous dogs waiting for the call of “set”. The first one is reset. The second one stands up. Then Northampton pile through. As the bodies come up Tom Youngs’ face is covered in blood. He’s seething. He says his been bitten.
No evidence is forthcoming and they go again. Straining every muscle and every sinew it’s a dead heat.
Tigers play. It goes left three phases then back right through Tuilagi and Crane. Ed Slater runs a powerful line from Ben Youngs’ shoulder, ripping through three tacklers to within an inch of the line. Northampton sense the danger; Phil Dowson attempts to kill the ball. He can’t. There’s an overlap. George North is tempted out of the line by Ben Youngs’ magnificent 25 yard floated pass and Anthony Allen is over unmolested in the corner.
Owen Williams starts his perfect day with his most challenging kick, from the right hand touchline he starts it wide right and draws it just inside the right-hand upright.
Burrell is caught holding on in his own half then Kahn Fotuali’i fails to release the man in tackle, Williams slots the 40m penalty each time to stretch the lead to 13-3.
Northampton lost captain Hartley and prop Ma’afu before halftime, Hartley injuring his shoulder attempting to ruck Jamie Gibson.
At the same time as Hartley was leaving the field Hooley spooned a penalty kick wide right.
Northampton denuded of their captain came back into the match strongly. Ben Youngs failed to deal with a chip through and Louis Deacon did magnificently to track back and hold Calum Clark just short. When the ball went wide Dowson looked like he had the easiest of run ins, only to falter, that mental block again, and check his run inside.
The pressure was not relieved though; Northampton had a 5m line out. 2 minutes left before halftime and with the drive being repelled Kahn Fotuali’i took the ball and ran. Using referee Barnes as a shield he escaped Owen Williams and ran through Anthony Allen for the score.
The second half was a cagier, scrappy affair. The first 20 minutes of the second quarter especially. Tigers often gained good territory but through mistakes and Northampton’s excellent defence always came up empty. Kicks were to the fore as both teams only wanted the ball in the opposition half.
Hooley had a kick at goal following a high tackle, but again he pushed it wide. Williams in contrast slotted his attempt from a similar spot following a scrum penalty.
With Hooley hooked James Wilson was tried at fly half. He had no troubles slotting a penalty, after Marcos Ayerza made no effort to release a tackled man, to get within a try of the lead with 20 minutes remaining.
And Northampton went for it. Perhaps too much. With confidence flowing through their veins and memories of a vivid counter attack to score in last year’s final they played from their own 22. And for a while it looked like working. Stretching the Tigers defence.
But they counted not for Ed Slater. The Milton Keynes Mammoth had other ideas. Tackling George Pisi he slammed him to the floor, rising and releasing his man like a swimmer gasping for air he dove again to go for the ball. Pisi hung on. Barnes blew his whistle. Williams slotted his kick plum centre.
Panic suddenly set in. From the kick off there was no one home to claim Ben Youngs’ box kick; Dowson eventually capturing it on the rebound before the Saints were driven back into touch in their own half. Nervous and itching to get in a good hit their entire backline was caught offside at the lineout.
Williams again. Lead stretched to 11 points. 2 tries were not longer enough; the Saints would have to find their kicking boots too.
Tigers made their subs with 10 minutes left. Trying to save fuel for the decisive trip to Clermont this weekend. Northampton’s own sub Lee Dickson raised the pace to run the Tigers defence ragged.
But still they could not crack the defence. It took two yellow cards gifted from Wayne Barnes before they could break down the epic defence.
The first was for Ben Youngs. Youngs kicks through, Tigers muff the catch and North breaks. To my eye he gets back to his feet and competes fairly for the ball, arguably winning a penalty for holding on. But Barnes saw no release of the man and also saw fit to put Youngs in the bin.
Buoyed by the man advantage the Saints played wide. Tigers thought they had the choke tackle and piled men into the maul, but Dickson showed ferocity to dig the ball out. With 7 Tigers men in the tackle plus the man in the bin Tigers were severely underhanded and the Saints scented blood.
Fotuali’i, now at fly half, throws the miss pass to Samoan test winger Ken Pisi, 10 yards out and the line at his mercy. Surely he’s in at the corner? Surely? But no! Adam Thompstone is flying in like a man possessed to knock him off balance and Scott Hamilton sweeping round a full 30 meters from behind the ruck is there to bundle him into touch a matter of millimetres from the line.
Just 2 minutes after the first card and Barnes is reaching for another. Goneva, the mild mannered Fijian, is fingered this time for, of all things, a dangerous tackle.
Goneva attempts to dislodge the ball with a swinging arm, and gets a good piece of the ball. A lesser player than George North would have fumbled it. But he holds on. With that penalty given Dickson taps it quickly and goes again. Goneva leaves him go the ten meters then seeing the pass already gone dives over him.
As Fotuali’i's cross kick comes to nothing Goneva is binned. Madness. And the Saints fans have the audacity to claim Barnes favours Leicester.
With the two man advantage the try was inevitable. Tigers simply could not cover all the bases. They manfully dealt with the driving maul but as play went centrally then back towards the touchline Tigers were a man short and Ethan Waller dove in for the score.
Crucially Wilson missed the conversion and Saints still needed the full fat 7 points for victory.
Tigers will be disappointed they let Saints get as close as they did. Locked into the Saints half and with the ball Tigers should have seen it out. But with 30 seconds of the game remaining and for the first time all match Barnes decided that Kitchener had gone off his feet to win a ruck.
I do not for one minute contest that Kitchener was off his feet. He clearly was. But so was every player for at least half the rucks all match. Rugby is a hard game for players at the best of times, there is no need for refereeing inconsistencies to make it harder.
So less than 30 seconds left and the Saints had the ball on the 22. They needed a try and a conversion to secure victory. Off the top they run a wrap around off the inside centre, Burrell fumbles the ball, backwards according to Barnes, North sweeping behind gathers and chips in one motion. Pisi is at full pelt whilst Manu and Hamilton have to turn. The after burners come on for Tuilagi. He storms past Hamilton to take the ball in front of Pisi.
The ball slips out of his grasp into touch. 10 seconds left. The Saints are too slow to form the lineout and to the relief of the Tigers full time is called.