Given the choice, Richard Cockerill would always prefer to score more points than Northampton than score points off his critics in the public prints, but there are times when it must be a close-run thing. Happily for the Leicester director of rugby, there was no decision to be made on East Midlands derby day at Welford Road: the Tigers, shorn of important players in every department, beat their nearest and less-than-dearest 16-12 despite the frailties and fragilities of George Ford in the No 10 shirt, whose performance gave Cockerill his second victory of the afternoon.
If it was not the kind of victory in which Cockerill felt like revelling, there was no disguising his sense of vindication. Some of those closest to Ford have given voice, albeit in private, to their frustration at the youngster's lack of senior game time. Cockerill? He has turned the deafest of deaf ears.
"The people who say this have not a clue about the development of young players," he said. "I'm the coach here and I work with George every day. I know what he can do and where he is with his game. The thing is, he's behind Toby Flood in our pecking order – and Toby is the England No 10. As I've told George, when he's in front of Toby as an outside-half he'll be playing international rugby.
"Dan Cole [the current England tight-head prop] sat on the bench here behind Julian White and Martin Castrogiovanni. He was impatient, of course, but as I said to him: 'Dan, when you're better than those blokes, you'll be in our starting team. What's more, you'll be one of the best in the world.' Where is he now? In our team, as one of the best in the world."
For a time in the first half, Ford was all over the place. Clattered hard and illegally early on by Samu Manoa, he chose to take the resulting penalty himself and messed up. He continued messing up, on the handling and playmaking fronts as well as the marksmanship one, for a long time afterwards and it was by no means clear that Cockerill would back him after the break. But back him he did and, while Ford was less than brilliant in the second period, he held his nerve admirably in a tight finish.
Had Ford, lost in the mists of pain as he was, been right to take that first kick? "He's not a kid," Cockerill replied. "He's old enough and man enough to make those decisions for himself. I'm not going to criticise him for making that choice. He's already played in big games for us and he'll play more, so I'm happy for him to use his judgement."
Ryan Lamb, the Northampton outside-half, was rather more impressive from the tee – indeed, he turned in a decent all-round performance before being sent to the cooler in the final minutes for a deliberate shoulder charge on Anthony Allen – but kicks at the sticks were all they had to offer. Despite a strong performance from the flanker Calum Clark, back after a long ban, they were squeezed by the home forwards, Graham Kitchener and Julian Salvi in particular.
Undone by Matt Smith's sucker-punch try straight after half-time, the Saints had to settle for a losing bonus – that and an eye-catching display from the young hooker Mike Haywood. In the fullness of time, that will ease the pain of defeat.
Leicester: Try Smith; Conversion Ford; Penalties Ford 3. Northampton: Penalties Lamb 4.
Leicester G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton (V Goneva, h-t), M Smith, A Allen, N Morris; G Ford, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni, L Deacon (E Slater, 33), G Kitchener, S Mafi, J Salvi, R Thorpe
Northampton T May; K Pisi (V Artemyev, 53), G Pisi, D Waldouck, J Elliott (L Burrell, 73); R Lamb, M Roberts; S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 62), M Haywood, B Mujati (P Doran-Jones, 60), S Manoa, M Sorenson, C Clark, P Dowson (capt), G-J Van Velze (R Oakley, 71).
Referee G Garner (Warwickshire).
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