At the end of a chastening week for the Premiership’s reputation, here was a reminder of its potential: two historic rivals, with sharply contrasting playing styles, staging a 250th East Midlands derby in which Leicester Tigers eventually overwhelmed Northampton Saints.
While this probably lacked the crackle and spite of a classic meeting between these clubs, a topsy-turvy contest reached a compelling climax. Set-piece power, a rampaging Nemani Nadolo and three late yellow cards proved too much for Northampton. Dan Cole’s scrummaging was pivotal, Ollie Chessum impressed and Freddie Steward plundered a hat-trick, too.
With Eddie Jones and his coaches present to watch eight members of the England squad that had beaten the Wallabies in Sydney three months ago, Courtney Lawes succumbed with a head injury in the 50th minute.
Having led 14-3 before half-time and 21-10 early in the second period, Saints folded and Tigers piled up a scoreline that rewarded the impact of their bench. The evergreen Cole, without a cap since the 2019 World Cup final, had laid the foundations.
“He’s a man who doesn’t seem to age,” said a grinning Steve Borthwick of his 35-year-old tighthead prop. “He probably looks the way he did when he was 21 and I thought he was very, very good today.”
Northampton had been brilliant in the opening skirmishes. Tommy Freeman surged through to collect Dan Biggar’s deft chip as the Wales fly-half used the outside his right boot cleverly. Freeman, roaming around the pitch as he had done for England in Australia, roused the home crowd with another evasive carry. Leicester resisted, though.
Cole forced a scrum penalty and, from the ensuing line-out, Nadolo and then Hanro Liebenberg dented Northampton. A breakdown offence resulted and Burns split the posts from 45 metres. Just as Tigers appeared to be finding a foothold, however, Northampton struck twice in quick succession. George Furbank, another England tourist in the summer, created both scores.
First, he sped to the outside shoulder of Guy Porter and offloaded to Hutchinson, who could free a supporting Alex Mitchell.
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Next, Leicester were punished for an uncharacteristically passive kick-chase. Mitchell coolly sent Furbank into space and Freeman followed up, beating Steward to the line. Biggar converted from the touchline and the champions were 14-3 behind.
Stubborn aerial rallies started the second quarter but Tigers showed signs of life. A first-phase strike from a scrum, initiated by Nadolo running over Fraser Dingwall, saw Jimmy Gopperth within inches of scoring.
Biggar’s last-gasp tackle saved Saints. Leicester turned down kickable penalties to pursue more and finally, on the back of a mammoth series of pick-and-go shunts, the backs were released. Burns looped Gopperth and laid on the try as Steward strolled in.
Northampton’s phase-play was clinical early in the second period, though. Dingwall stepped up at first-receiver to unleash Lewis Ludlam and took an offload in return. Alex Coles, the athletic lock, cantered through to cross the whitewash.
A rapid response was, unsurprisingly, founded on Leicester’s scrum. Burns, Porter and Steward combined to locate Nadolo and Porter arced around to take an overhead offload. Home fans were not sure about the grounding, but Burns defied boos to land a conversion that kept Tigers close at 21-17 down.
The arrivals of Harry Wells and Olly Cracknell energised the Tigers pack and a bludgeoning attack almost punched the visitors in front. After pounding away at the line, Leicester were awarded a put-in to allow medics to attend to Ethan Waller, Saints’ stricken loosehead prop. A couple of resets were required, as if to ready everyone for the madness to come.
With Tigers seemingly certain to go ahead, Hutchinson conjured a fine interception. Freeman stretched his legs but Leicester recovered and Juarno Augustus was sin-binned for killing the ball at a breakdown. Saints had to scramble to stop Chris Ashton and then the irrepressible Chessum on opposite flanks.
Ultimately, though, with Joe Heyes in the fray as a replacement for Cole, the scrummaging of Tigers buckled Northampton and Iyogun saw yellow. Leicester went to the corner, mauled to within and metre and then imparted width for Ashton to scamper in. More drama would follow.
Francois van Wyk swooped over Furbank for a turnover and, with Ben Youngs buzzing around, Leicester worked the ball to Gopperth. George Martin dotted down after a number of ricochets and Mitchell, adjudged to have slapped the ball down, became the third Saint to be sin-binned by referee Karl Dickson.
Phil Cokanasiga was another influential replacement as Saints, reduced to 12, chased shadows. Steward’s second and third tries swept Tigers beyond 40 for a fourth straight victory over their nearest and dearest.
Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby, had no complaints with Dickson despite his team losing the overall penalty count by 14 to two. “Pressure will lead to indiscipline, indiscipline will lead to punishments,” he said. “Today we were under a tonne of pressure.”
Scoring: 0-3 Burns penalty, 5-3 Mitchell try, 7-3 Biggar conversion, 12-3 Freeman try, 14-3 Biggar conversion, 14-8 Steward try, 14-10 Burns conversion, 19-10 Coles try, 21-10 Biggar conversion, 21-15 Porter try, 21-17 Burns conversion, 21-22 Ashton try, 21-27 Martin try, 21-29 Burns conversion, 21-34 Steward try, 21-36 Burns conversion, 21-41 Steward try
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; T Freeman (T Collins, 76), F Dingwall, R Hutchinson, M Proctor (T James, 75); D Biggar, A Mitchell; E Iyogun (E Waller, 58-61), S Matavesi (M Haywood, 65), A Petch (P Hill, 52), L Salakaia-Loto, A Coles, C Lawes (A Moon, 50), L Ludlam (A Scott-Young, 75), J Augustus
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; H Potter (C Ashton, 65), G Porter (P Cokanasiga, 65), J Gopperth, N Nadolo (J Taufete’e, 78); F Burns, J van Poortvliet (B Youngs, 59); J Cronin (F van Wyk, 65), C Clare, D Cole (J Heyes, 59), O Chessum, C Green (H Wells, 48), G Martin, T Reffell (O Cracknell, 54), H Liebenberg
Yellow cards: Augustus, 65, Iyogun, 68, Mitchell, 73