Back in the amateur era, when boot money and fake jobs were all the rage and a rugger man could sing publicly about the virgin population of Inverness without being dragged before the European Court of Human Rights, the elite game in England was split into four. Remember the Divisional Championship, the tournament that put the "off" in box office? Nobody watched it because nobody cared – a fact ignored by certain dyed-in-the-wool Twickenham types who were plotting to resurrect the thing when the men in white coats intervened. Phew, close shave.
Nowadays, the domestic game is split into two: the haves and the have-nots. Yet there is a peculiarly divisional feel to the Premiership pecking order this season, and reading from the bottom up, it goes something like this: the North, the South-west, London and – market leaders by far – the Midlands, as represented by Leicester and Northampton, two great clubs separated by a few miles of M1 tarmac and precious little else. When it comes to passion, pulling power and a sense of ambition, there is not a fag paper thin enough to slip between them.
Make no mistake, this is the age of Midlands rugby. Players from the region were not entirely unsuccessful when they gathered in common cause during the divisional days, yet they never quite tripped the light fantastic. Now, they most certainly would. Of the personnel on show in front of a sell-out 24,000 audience at Welford Road on Saturday night, Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Anthony Allen, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs and either Jon Clarke or the scary England-qualified Samoan centre Manu Tuilagi would feature in a very decent back division, while Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Louis Deacon, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood would make up five-eighths of a serious forward pack, leaving Phil Dowson and Jordan Crane to squabble over the No 8 role and the high-calibre Tom Croft to slip in on the blind-side flank when fit. Which leaves two gaps, at left wing and loose-head prop. Problem? Not really – Miles Benjamin and Matt Mullan from Worcester would cruise it. Divisional Championship? Divisional cakewalk, more like.
There was no mistaking the quality of the offering by the country's leading clubs; indeed, it was the contest of the campaign to date. "The level was right up there," said Richard Cockerill, the director of rugby at Leicester. "We're probably the two best sides in the country at the moment" – Probably? Please – "so we approached this with the attitude that Northampton were the team to beat. It was a great battle, a great game, a great victory." Cockerill's opposite number, Jim Mallinder, was equally taken with the standard, if less impressed by the outcome. "It's this sort of match that gives us an understanding of what we have to do to be the best in the league," he said.
It was also the sort of match guaranteed to give Martin Johnson, the England manager, a dose of the heebie-jeebies. Injuries being inevitable – Tuilagi's horizontal style of big-hit tackling would have made the occasion perilous to life and limb even if everyone else had been playing touch rugby – the red-rose hierarchy could only hope and pray that their Six Nations contingent escaped the worst of the carnage. Fat chance. Ashton pranged himself in the opening seconds and was off the field inside half an hour nursing his quad muscle. Lawes did not get that far, calling it a day 10 minutes in after picking up a knee problem.
Mallinder was invited to give Johnson an encouraging message of the "I'm sure they'll be fine" variety, but declined. "I don't know the extent of the injuries, but they're fairly tough lads and they wouldn't have come off with minor scrapes," he said. "You'd think they'd be pretty decent injuries." The ankle injury suffered by the Leicester captain, Geordan Murphy, appeared to be very decent indeed, given that he left the pitch on a stretcher.
Worryingly, it seemed that another of Johnson's first-choice players, Hartley the hooker, had a nasty affliction of his own, although no one could quite work out whether the issue concerned his throwing arm or his eyesight. The Northampton line-out all but disappeared in a fog of bad calls, crooked throws and missed targets, and while such problems cannot always be laid at the door of a single individual, the fact that a performer as central to the Saints' cause as Hartley was substituted well before close of play told a tale.
But for their travails in this department, the visitors would certainly have secured a losing bonus point and might even have won. They scored a blinding opening try inside a minute – Foden, running straight and fast from deep, claimed the points with a clever little show of the ball – and as the game unfolded in all its ferocity, they shaded a ding-dong battle at the scrum while counter-rucking so brilliantly in defence that the All Blacks themselves would have raised their eyebrows. Meanwhile, Stephen Myler, dismissed by so many as a deep-in-the-pocket tactical kicker, showed himself to be more than a one-trick pony at No 10.
Yet for all their virtues, they could not prevent Leicester imposing their collective will. Craig Newby and Marcos Ayerza scored their tries – the first came from a short-range drive in the right corner, the second from a joyous front-rower's stampede close to the sticks following some characteristically button-bright work from Ben Youngs – and by the end, Northampton were on the point of suffocation.
There was one touching moment midway through the second half when the Vesuvian Cockerill, reaching the climax of one of his many verbal eruptions, caught the eye of Dorian West, the Northampton forwards coach, and grinned softly. It was as if the two men, who had spent a previous life competing fiercely for the hooker's spot at Leicester, recognised that even in this bear pit of an arena, rugby could still be fun. "We almost danced," Cockerill said afterwards. Steady, Richard. You'll set people talking.
Leicester: Tries Newby, Ayerza; Conversion Flood; Penalties Flood 5. Northampton: Try Foden; Conversion Myler; Penalties Myler 3.
Leicester G Murphy (capt, H Agulla, 77); 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, C Newby, J Crane.
Northampton B Foden; C Ashton (J Ansbro, 27), J Clarke, J Downey (S Geraghty, 73, S Commins, 77), P Diggin; S Myler, R Powell; S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer, 83), D Hartley (capt, B Sharman, 69), B Mujati (T Mercey, 83), C Lawes (C Clark, 10), C Day (M Sorenson, 63), P Dowson, T Wood, R Wilson.
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content