Lawes and Ashton feel full force of brutal derby
Leicester Tigers 27 Northampton Saints 16: England's Johnson sees two young stars injured as Saints are beaten by a ravenous pack of Tigers
Sunday 09 January 2011
You would not bet against these clubs meeting again in the Premiership final in May, but here in the midwinter chill Leicester were deserved victors of a high-quality joust dimmed only by a number of injuries, including three of concern beyond the bounds of local rivalry.
Might the teams placed one and two in the Aviva Premiership ease themselves in? A few judicious kicks downfield, perhaps, and keep away from contact and risk? No way. Northampton had a try in 52 seconds; the Tigers swept upfield in riposte for a quick eight points; and with barely a dozen minutes gone the visitors had a 10-8 lead.
That opening try was a beauty of a counter-attack. Ben Youngs box-kicked for Leicester, the chasing Anthony Allen waited for the bounce and Northampton seized the ball. Brian Mujati had a charge and then Steve Myler passed long, right to left, to Jon Clarke, who had Ben Foden racing at high pace outside him. The England full-back shimmied and dummied his way through to score. Myler converted.
Youngs was not best pleased with that as an opening in this showcase of the best of a Premiership table that is demarcated on regional lines: the east Midlands on top, followed by London's four clubs, the West Country three and finally our unfortunate friends in the north. The Leicester scrum-half tapped a penalty and shoed anything in his way at the ruck as he led the Tigers' response, with Jordan Crane – one third of a hefty home back row – providing the muscle.
Hard driving earned a penalty that was kicked by Youngs' England half-back pal, Toby Flood, from near the 22. Then, in the ninth minute, Craig Newby went over near the right-hand corner, low to the ground like a truffling pig. It was a try to warm the cockles of the watching England manager, but Martin Johnson would have been less enamoured with the sight of two of his stars this season – the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes and wing Chris Ashton – limping off before half-time. Sir Clive Woodward, a Leicester director who has been strongly linked with the performance director role being created at the Rugby Football Union, watched on television.
Alesana Tuilagi snuffed out a Saints attack with a fine tackle on Paul Diggin, but Leicester conceded – for them – a rare penalty at a scrum. Myler missed twice from long range; Flood too was way off from near halfway. So the Leicester No 10's 25th-minute kick, for offside in the 22, was the only other score before half-time and Leicester led 11-10.
Saints' coaches replaced Lawes with a flanker, Calum Clark, rather than a lock, Mark Sorenson. It worked initially but Tom Wood, the openside, had the first line-out throw of the second half nicked from him and that led to a lengthy spell of pressure, even if Youngs and Flood fluffing their lines off a maul meant Leicester had to settle for a penalty, by Flood.
A seventh member of Johnson's most recent England XV, Dan Cole, came on to replace Martin Castrogiovanni at tighthead for Leicester, less than four weeks before the Six Nations kick-off in Wales – hence the concern over Lawes and Ashton. But Cole's immediate duty was sorting out the Tigers scrum. They were rumbled back at least a dozen metres to concede a penalty that was kicked from 40 metres by Myler, but a tit-for-tat success for Leicester in the Northampton half led to Flood restoring the margin at 17-13 after 57 minutes.
It was 100 miles-an-hour stuff. Leicester's almost hysterical support groaned at Myler's third penalty then exulted when Thomas Waldrom battered into the 22 and Youngs – as he had done brilliantly in the win at Exeter which saw Leicester assume the Premiership leadership from Saints last week – made the link for Marcos Ayerza to score a try.
Flood converted and Sorenson, on for Christian Day by now, was sent to the sin-bin after being trapped in a ruck by another mighty Tigers attack. That teed up three more points for Flood and when Manu Tuilagi halted the excellent Foden at full pelt it confirmed a second straight defeat for Saints for the first time since April. But Leicester agonised too at the sight of their captain, the Ireland full-back Geordan Murphy, being carried off in the final 10 minutes.
Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt; H Agulla, 71); M Smith, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 53), L Deacon, G Skivington, T Waldrom, J Crane, C Newby.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton (J Ansbro, 27), J Clarke, J Downey (S Geraghty, 70), P Diggin; S Myler, R Powell (S Commins, 71); S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer, 75), D Hartley (capt; B Sharman, 66), B Mujati (T Mercey, 75), C Lawes (C Clark, 11), C Day (M Sorenson, 62), P Dowson, R Wilson, T Wood.
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
Tries: Newby, Ayerza
Pens: Flood 5
Pens: Myler 3
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