When these great local rivals met in last May’s tumultuous Premiership final the spontaneous combustion was too much for Northampton’s captain Dylan Hartley, who was sent off for verbal abuse of the referee and saw his team’s chances of a first League title, and his own place on the Lions tour, crash and burn in unison. Hartley managed to stay on the field for all of this early-season rematch but his jitters at a very late line-out almost handed Leicester an unlikely win.
The referee – this time, JP Doyle rather than Wayne Barnes – awarded a free-kick against Hartley for dummying his throw in a parlous position seven metres from his goalline but Leicester’s scrum, in piling forward on David Mélé’s put-in, were unable to take the ball with them and the chance was lost.
The draw felt like a victory for Leicester. They were unable to extend their eight-match winning streak against their East Midlands neighbours, but they had started with nine first-team players missing, and looked in deep trouble when they trailed by 10 points with 13 minutes remaining after Steve Myler, in a rich vein of form with the tee for Northampton, kicked his fourth penalty goal for a scrum offence.
It appeared to signal a changing of the tide, because the home pack – even without Marcos Ayerza, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft and Steve Mafi – had mostly made the Saints’ life a misery at the set-piece up to that point. More bizarrely still, the visitors won that penalty having just substituted Alex Corbisiero, the scorer of their only try earlier in the second half and considered by everyone from Northampton to England to the Lions to be a go-to man if you want to mount a steady scrum.
So Northampton were 19-9 up, and the thunderous atmosphere threatened to shatter the Richter scale. An occasion the Premiership bigwigs dream of when they envisage new competitions run by them, always involving the perceived big clubs.
There had been a new blow for England’s depleted midfield ahead of the autumn internationals in a month’s time, when Luther Burrell, a fringe candidate with Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi already ruled out, went off with a shoulder injury after a heavy tackle. The Northampton second row Lawes was then sent to the sin bin for a marginal not-rolling-away offence in the 71st minute, with Leicester’s Louis Deacon joining him for a rant at the referee while Toby Flood – whose pre-match 60 per cent kicking record compared unfavourably with Myler’s 85 per cent – landed the kick that cut into Northampton’s lead.
Not much had been seen of Corbisiero’s Lions mate on the Northampton wing, George North until he was penalised for not supporting his weight after a tackle, and Flood went to the corner. Leicester’s line-out drive was illegally halted by Northampton, the champions went for the line-out again and this time after Graham Kitchener’s catch, Julian Salvi snapped an ambitious pass away to Flood who stepped past the first tackle before North and Samu Manoa stopped him near the posts. Mélé, on for Ben Youngs at scrum-half, recycled and Ed Slater crashed over, with Flood’s simple conversion tying the scores.
Who would envy Doyle his job? One man’s turnover is so easily another’s piece of chicanery. And the intervention of the television match official does not always satisfy. Burrell appeared to slam Anthony Allen legitimately on his back with a tackle in the 16th minute that the TMO called as a yellow card. Northampton went 6-3 ahead while Burrell was off, and 9-3 with the third penalty of the first half by Myler just as Burrell was returning. Somehow Leicester’s best attacking position – a scrum in the Northampton 22 after Ben Foden’s immense clearing kick unluckily rolled – went against them when Doyle surprisingly penalised another forward-moving pack.
Flood had missed a 45-metre penalty early on, but kicked one for Burrell’s offence and another 10 minutes before half-time when Phil Dowson was ruled not to have rolled away. This and a similar decision had Hartley querying the referee, much to the jeering amusement of the Leicester support completely unwilling to forgive and forget the events of a few months ago. Hartley must have kept his language in check, though – despite the 10 penalties against his team before half-time.
Not long after the resumption a 12-phase move ended with Corbisiero’s second try of the season, converted by Myler, before Flood’s 50-metre penalty as the excitement ratcheted up even if the finishing, with overlaps missed by both teams, was flawed.
“The team hasn’t been this good, this well organised for a long time,” said Lawes, who with Christian Day out injured was Saints’ main line-out target alongside Tom Wood. “I think we could have capitalised on a few things if the scrum had gone better. But we’re grinding teams down and when they came to our place we’re taking them apart. There’s not much more we can ask.”
Leicester: N Morris; B Scully (D Bowden, 1-5), N Goneva, A Allen (Bowden 70), A Thompstone; T Flood (capt), B Youngs (D Mélé, 70); L Mulipola, T Youngs, D Cole, L Deacon, G Kitchener, E Slater, J Salvi, J Crane.
Northampton: B Foden; J Elliott, G Pisi, L Burrell (J Wilson, 70), G North; S Myler, L Dickson; A Corbisiero (A Waller, 64), D Hartley (capt), T Mercey (G Denman, 64), S Manoa, C Lawes, T Wood, P Dowson (C Clark, 56), S Dickinson.
Referee: JP Doyle (London).