Northampton. . . 9
THERE were times during this spellbinding contest when it was impossible to distinguish the main event from the supporting acts. Two of England's finest clubs locked in league combat; Martin Bayfield, Northampton's stricken giant returning after fearful injury, in opposition to his likely partner in the international championship; and Dean Richards, the ageing colossus whose powers are undiminished by countless battles, against the heir apparent, Tim Rodber.
As if that were not compelling enough, Leicester throughout the game mounted an onslaught of sustained ferocity sufficient to have won a leagueful of matches. Crazy as it seems, Northampton played magnificently to restrict them to such a total. Had it not been for their savage commitment it would have been an annihilation.
Time and again the Leicester pack swept forward, squeezing Northampton against their line. Behind them, Potter, Underwood and Hackney made countless lacerating runs, yet Leicester were restricted in a furiously fought first half to a penalty and two beautifully struck drop goals by Jez Harris, the first after just 20 seconds.
Only twice did they let Northampton out of their pen, and on both occasions Paul Grayson kicked penalties after the two sets of forwards, and the front rows in particular, were engaged in a macho display of flailing fists. The first half ended with another swirling Leicester attack - Neil Back again magnificently to the fore - stopped a yard short by Northampton's shuddering tackles.
There was no discernible reduction in pace or cooling of temperature between the front rows at the start of the second half. Encircled close to the touch-line, Nick Beal escaped, and Leicester were penalised at the ruck for Grayson to kick his third penalty and level the scores. But that was their last success. If Leicester had lost a little snap at this stage, their front row still crackled and continued to concede penalties. Eventually the referee had had enough, warning both captains that every collapsed scrummage would be penalised. Now we could get back to the rugby. Back and Potter again attacked thrillingly up the left, paving the way for the first of two more penalties by Harris.
Bayfield took a terrible pounding at the line-out. But at least he survived, which is more than can be said of Rodber, whose departure with a hamstring strain signalled the end of Northampton's courageous rearguard action. Rodber will discover today whether the injury is a pull or a tear.
Steve Hackney blazed up the right touch-line but was felled by Kevin Morgan's glorious tackle. A subsequent Northampton boot presented Harris with the easiest of his penalties. Minutes later, a chance that appeared to have been lost by Potter's slip was resurrected with Back's miss pass, and Underwood scored Leicester's first try. Matt Poole and Wayne Kilford scored further tries, both converted by Harris, giving him 21 points, before the end brought relief to Northampton, joy to Leicester and pleasure to all present.
Leicester: Tries Underwood, Poole, Kilford; Conversions Harris 3; Penalties Harris 3; Drop goals Harris 2. Northampton: Penalties Grayson 3.
Leicester: W Kilford; S Hackney, S Potter, L Boyle, T Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.
Northampton: I Hunter; K Morgan, J Fletcher, N Fielden (B Taylor), N Beal; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), G Pearce, N Edwards, M Bayfield, P Walton, T Rodber (S Foale), M Steffert.
Referee: M Bayliss (Gloucs Society).