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