The vast majority of England's senior management team – four-fifths of them, to be precise – congregated at Franklin's Gardens yesterday to watch the first match-up between two of the heavyweight hitters in this season's Aviva Premiership. How they must wish they had spent their Sabbaths in church, or plumbing in the new dishwasher, or watching Miss Marple on the telly. Most of the things they wanted to see failed to happen, while most of their nightmares came to pass. And by way of making things worse for Martin Johnson and Graham Rowntree, those Leicester hard-heads of old, their successors found a way of losing against a team who spurned 18 highly kickable points.
Toby Flood, the current England No 10, broke down with a knee injury in stoppage time at the end of the first half and limped gingerly from the field, the pain distorting his choirboy looks in a way that might have inspired Picasso himself. "He's had a bang on his left medial ligament," reported Richard Cockerill, the champions' director of rugby. "It's not ideal, but let's not get carried away. He'll have it scanned and talk things through with the doctors over the next 48 hours."
Johnson, Rowntree and company also saw two of their elite hookers, Dylan Hartley and George Chuter, incarcerated in the cooler for rank indiscipline at the tackle area – precisely the kind of misbehaviour that will feed the All Blacks' notions of their own invincibility if repeated at Twickenham in November. In addition, they witnessed a lovely late cameo from one of the players they have ditched, Shane Geraghty, who gave the front rank of the Leicester defence a dose of the heebie-jeebies every time he touched the ball. Indeed, the outside break with which he set up Brian Mujati for the decisive try early in the final quarter had an iridescence all of its own.
Yet the individual who really upset the applecart was Lee Dickson, the Northampton scrum-half, who had clearly swallowed an entire bottle of "busy pills" before kick-off. Up against Ben Youngs, the new first-choice at international level and easily the most talked-about player of the year so far, the 25-year-old generated such energy amid the hurly-burly that Leicester, denied access to a straitjacket and a room with rubber walls, could find no means of quietening him down. Years ago, Dewi Morris played his rugby in a similar style – and he ended up as a Test Lion.
If Jim Mallinder, who runs the show at Northampton, flatly refused to criticise Youngs as a way of highlighting Dickson's claims to representative honours, he did not hold back in praising his man. "I'd put him right up there," he said when asked to place the former Newcastle half-back in the batting order. "Ben Youngs is a very fine player who offers a great deal, but Lee suits our game. He's Mr Energy for us, not just on the field but around the place generally. I think England should take a look at him, as I'm sure they will after that display."
It was Dickson, among others, who set an early tempo that so surprised the champions, they found themselves 14 points to the bad inside five minutes. Soane Tonga'uiha, the Tongan prop who impacted so heavily on the Premiership last season, broke what may conceivably be new ground by scoring two tries in that short space of time, the first round the edge of a ruck close to the Leicester line, the second in free-running style after being put away by Chris Ashton.
Stephen Myler, the dead-eyed marksman from rugby league, converted both and added a penalty before falling apart at the seams. Penalty after penalty went west – or east, or north, or south – and when he attempted to capitalise on another long period of Northampton pressure by dropping a goal midway through the third quarter, he missed that as well. Cue Geraghty, from stage right. Immediately, the Saints had more to their armoury than an impassioned pack and a scrum-half who made even these forwards look like cold fish. Taking the ball straight to the Leicester line, he asked new questions of a team who had struggled to answer the old ones. Mujati's try was no more than the gifted midfielder deserved.
At this stage, Leicester had only a converted first-half score from Alesana Tuilagi to show for their torment: when Geraghty followed up his points-creating run with a simple penalty from in front of the sticks, the visitors were 27-7 down and flirting with humiliation. They did no more than flirt, however. History tells us that the Tigers never play less than the full 80 and sure enough, they ransacked the remnants of their competitive spirit to claim two late tries through the ever-impressive Scott Hamilton, one in either corner. Had Jeremy Staunton, on the field for the stricken Flood, converted the second of them, they would have left for home with a losing bonus.
They were aided and abetted in this by Mallinder's decision to play the substitution game at the last knockings. With Hartley already in the bin and the influential Phil Dowson alongside him as the sacrificial lamb at scrum-time, Northampton voluntarily divested themselves of the hard-tackling centre Jon Clarke, the ball-carrying No 8 Roger Wilson and, scarcely believably, Dickson. Every coach in Christendom now talks of rugby as a "22-man game" – or, up here in Europe, a "23-man" one – but it is still playing fast and loose with common sense to weaken a team through choice when opponents as bloody-minded as Leicester are on the other side of halfway.
In the event, Mallinder escaped the worst consequences of his tactical fiddlings. But one of these fine days, a leading coach will pay heavily for overplaying his hand, just as Robbie Deans of the Wallabies copped it with both barrels from his critics after underplaying it against South Africa in Pretoria nine days ago. Substitutions? They can be more trouble than they're worth. Or maybe less.
Scorers: Northampton - Tries: Tonga'uiha 2, Mujati. Conversions: Myler 2, Geraghty. Penalties: Myler, Geraghty. Leicester - Tries: Hamilton 2, Tuilagi. Conversions: Flood, Staunton.
Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke (J Ansbro 73), J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler (S Geraghty 56), L Dickson (R Powell 73); S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer 73), D Hartley (capt, B Sharman 73), B Mujati (T Mercey 75), C Lawes (M Easter 81), C Day, P Dowson, T Wood, R Wilson (C Clark 73).
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, D Hipkiss (M Tuilagi 63), A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood (J Staunton 40+3), B Youngs (J Grindal 73); M Ayerza (B Stankovich 64), G Chuter (B Pienaar 80), M Castro Giovanni (D Cole 56), C Green (E Slater 64), G Skivington, C Newby (J Duffy 73), B Woods, T Waldrom.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content